Tedium and tension at St. Paul recount central

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

A dispatch from my colleague Curt Brown, stationed at Ramsey County recount headquarters:

With dozens of campaign observers crowding into the Ramsey County property tax office beneath the Mississippi River bluffs on Plato Blvd., a busy and calm mood was only interrupted once and a while with tensions.

“It’s pretty tedious, but the process is fair and I’m so impressed with the careful attention the judges are using to make sure all legally cast ballots are counted,” said Pakou Hang, a Franken observer from St. Paul’s East Side.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie stopped by Wednesday afternoon to tour the operation and said: “It’s amazing to see democracy in action, isn’t it?”

Ritchie said he had reports of low ballot challenges statewide on Day 1.

“Ramsey County is the second largest in the state so it’s a good measure of what’s happening across the state,” Ritchie said. “Things have gone pretty smooth.”

One dustup came when Coleman observer Bob Murray questioned Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky on all the people jamming in the room as well as how ballot stacks were being counted. When Murray challenged a handful of ballots in which voters appeared to mark Franken clearly, Mansky said they were frivolous challenges, something state law prohibits.

“If you want to deal with it, take me to court,” Mansky said.

Golden Valley: low-key, despite challenges

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

goldenvalley.JPGThe observers at the recount at Golden Valley City Hall whispered to each other so as not to disturb the sorting. It was a distinct contrast to the three other locations I’ve visited so far today. The election officials themselves were silent, allowing the representatives to sit by their side or watch over their shoulder as they took one stack and made it three.

After seeing so many filled-in bubbles, “your eyes get buggy after a while,” said Coleman representative Mike Vallante, who came to Golden Valley from St. Paul.

Nevertheless, the representatives were determined not to let anything slip by. As of 2:30 p.m., two challenged ballots were on their way to the state Canvassing Board, both courtesy of Al Franken’s representatives. They were both counted as “overvotes” because bubbles for both Franken and Coleman were filled in, said head recount official Sue Virnig. In each case, the filled bubble for Coleman appeared to be crossed out. In Virnig’s view, the intent was unclear. But a Franken representative said: send them to St. Paul.

The first three recounted precincts in Golden Valley have resulted in no net change, as Franken gained a vote in one precinct and lost one in another.

One challenge headed to the state so far in Plymouth

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

plymouth1.JPGThe bubble beside Norm Coleman’s name appeared to have both an X and a squiggle in it, but the Al Franken campaign wants the state Canvassing Board to rule on whether it should count. That’s the only challenge in the special envelope in Plymouth so far, according to Sandy Engdahl, the city clerk and the official running the city recount.

The Canada geese milling on the grounds and parking lot of Plymouth City Hall were oblivious to the gaggle of election officials and observers inside. The drone of “Franken” and “Coleman” was accompanied by the swishing of paper in Medicine Lake Room A. Early on, Engdahl had to admonish some candidate representatives from trying to tell her counters how to count. Clearly, she said, the recount watchers are “very passionate,” but she has to remind them of everyone’s roles in this civic drama.

Eight of the 24 precincts had been counted by 1:45 p.m., and the only challenged ballot, in Engdahl’s view, was clearly a vote for Coleman. Nevertheless, the Franken campaign was allowed to seek a second opinion.

Two missing ballots make for a “bumpy” start in Crystal

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

Janet Lewis, the city clerk of Crystal, spoke into the microphone about the results of the recount in Ward 4, Precinct 2. 453 votes for Sen. Norm Coleman. 629 for Al Franken. 265 additional ballots.

“And there are two missing ballots,” she said.

The announcement brought shouts from the observers. “Lock the doors!” “Strip search!”

Lewis speculated that the mystery might actually be the result of election judges running one or both ballots through the machines twice, presumably because they jammed the first time. They’re not supposed to do that, but it happens, Lewis told me.

Nevertheless, the revelation prompted a prolonged huddle by Franken’s representatives and legal team.

The occasional hoots weren’t a sign of serious tension between the squads of Franken and Coleman supporters, even at this relatively small recount site. “We’re all being cordial to one another,” said Robert Brandtjen of St. Paul, who came to Crystal on behalf of Coleman. “I really think the more people who witness this, the better off we’ll be.”

After the unscheduled break, Lewis started the process once more. “We’re just going to be one lovely team,” she said.