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How The Recount Process Works

Jana Kooren,
ACLU of Minnesota
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November 20, 2008

Wednesday, November 19, was the first day of the Minnesota recount for our very close U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) challenger Al Franken. At the end of the first count, it came down to a difference of just over 200 votes with Coleman holding a narrow lead. This recount is receiving a lot of attention nationally because of how close the Democrats are to having a filibuster proof majority in the U.S. Senate.

So, when I heard that there was going to be a recount, I knew I wanted to be part of it. I immediately signed up to be a non-partisan observer. I went through a brief training and signed a non-partisan code of conduct and was sent on my way. When I arrived on Wednesday morning, I didn’t know quite what to expect, but found the process to be fairly straightforward and easy to understand.

In the room where the recount was taking place, there were eight tables and at each table there was one county or city official, three or four election judges, and one observer from each campaign. Then there were scores of media people and other county workers, sheriff’s deputies and more Coleman and Franken observers. All in all, I would guess that at any time there were between 75 and 100 people in the room (55 of whom were at the tables participating in the recount).

In the morning, the head of the county elections gave the instructions for how the day would proceed and what the ground rules were. Some of the rules: no one but the election judges and the county workers can touch the ballots, no counters can leave the table until they finish with the precinct they are working on, and no one is allowed at the table except the people I listed above.

Each table received a box of ballots from a different precinct, which varied in size from a thousand to a couple thousand ballots. Each precinct box was sealed when it arrived and was unsealed on the table by the workers. The county or city worker then took a stack of ballots and began sorting them into different piles, one for Franken, one for Coleman, one for other (which includes all other candidates and blank), and one for challenges. Challenges occurred when the party observer wanted to challenge the placement of the ballot if they felt like the official did not correctly interpret the voter’s intent. Then, the election judges counted each candidate’s ballots into sets of 25, and stacked them into larger piles on the table.

They then counted the number of stacks of 25 to determine the number of votes cast for each candidate. The challenged ballots were placed in a separate envelope to be turned over to the commission in charge of the recount process. The recount numbers are final; if there is any discrepancy between the recount number and the computer-generated number, they use the recount number. The boxes were then resealed and sent back to secure storage where they will be kept for another two years.

After my first day, I felt proud that Minnesota’s process was so transparent and confident that our election could not be stolen by one party or another because we had such a good recount process. Check back in a few days to read more about challenges made to ballots and how they were used by both parties.

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