Minn. Senate race could hinge on scanning machine mistakes

The state's hand recount starting Wednesday may show that thousands of ballots were mistakenly rejected by optical scanning machines.

Clarification at 2:52 p.m. PST: An earlier version of this story said the Minneapolis director of elections admitted she left 32 absentee ballots in her car. But the Minnesota Secretary of State's office says that's untrue and we've changed the language to reflect that position as we investigate further.

Fears of e-voting glitches in the November election are still not over. The outcome of the Minnesota Senate race--which could give the Democrats a firmer grasp on power in Washington--may depend on whether scanning machines made mistakes two weeks ago when tabulating ballots.

Republican Sen. Norm Coleman holds a lead of only about 200 votes over his main opponent, Democrat Al Franken, but a hand recount that begins Wednesday could show that a few thousand votes were mistakenly rejected.

With Coleman's lead under a margin of 0.5 percent of the more than 2.9 million votes cast in the Minnesota senate race on November 4, the state automatically begins a hand recount of every ballot.

Minnesota used optical scanning machines to read paper ballots, and enough ballots could have been mistakenly rejected by the machines to alter the outcome of the race, said Beth Fraser, director of governmental affairs for the Minnesota secretary of state's office. The office estimates that as many as two votes for every 1,000 cast--or as many as 6,000--may have been mistakenly rejected.

The optical scanners would have rejected ballots that were not filled out correctly--for instance, if a voter circled a candidate's name rather than filling in the bubble next to the name, Fraser said. However, Minnesota law mandates that any vote in which the voter's intention is clear must be counted. In other words, the law is more liberal than the machines, and a manual recount could permit votes to be counted that a machine would reject.

"We have a pretty clear statute of what counts as a vote," Fraser said.

Starting Wednesday, election officials in 106 locations throughout the state will start sorting through ballots, paying particular attention to those that were rejected to decide whether they should be counted.

"It's kind of a consensus process," Fraser said.

Representatives for both of the two major candidates will be at every table, she said, and they are free to challenge the election officials' judgment. If anyone is left unsatisfied about the status of a vote, it will be put aside for the state canvassing board to review.

Officials aim to finish the hand recount by December 5. The state canvassing board--which is chaired by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and includes Minnesota Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, Associate Justice G. Barry Anderson, and District Judges Kathleen Gearin and Edward Cleary--will reconvene on December 16 with the goal of getting in the final results by December 19.

While the optical scanning machines may have rejected some crucial votes, Fraser said the machines are the best option for counting votes.

"It speeds up the counting but gives us the paper ballots to count on, so the results are fully auditable," she said.

Tallying mistakenly rejected votes is unlikely to clear the controversy surrounding the recount, however. Franken's campaign filed a lawsuit on November 13 requesting that the names of voters who cast invalidated absentee ballots be made public, so those ballots can be reviewed by the canvassing board as well. A hearing on the case is set for Wednesday morning, after the recount starts.

Other incidents have called into question some of the results, such as an allegation the Minneapolis director of elections accidentally left 32 absentee ballots in her car. Additionally, Coleman has called into question the neutrality of Secretary of State Ritchie, who is a Democrat.

 

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