Just Because Norm’s Appeal Reeks Doesn’t Mean It’s Wrong

(Guest post from Joe Loveland)

Defending an extension of the ceaseless Minnesota Senate recount is about as popular as defending an extension of the sitcom Cavemen.

But count me in. I support Senator Coleman’s appeal questioning whether absentee ballots were judged by varying standards in the counties.scales-of-justice

By the way, this is not to say that I think the appeal is wise from a PR and political standpoint. If the Senator wants to score sorely needed PR points, he obviously should pull out with a teary eyed “for the good of the state” speech. If he some day wants to run for Governor, or even Soil and Water Conservation District, he should pull out. Heck, if he just wants to avoid a stoning in the public square – and I’m not talking about the Hofstra kind of stoning, dude – he should pull out.

But if differing election law standards have been applied to the absentee ballots in the various counties, Senator Coleman certainly has the right to raise that question in the appeals court. In fact, he has a responsibility to do it.

Look, I don’t want to go all powder wiggy on you here, but there is a pretty good reason we have a Constitution. We have a Constitution to ensure that, among other things, the the laws passed by various jurisdictions are applied in a way that give us equal protection. The equal protection clause of the Constitution says that my vote gets the same protections in Ramsey County that voters in all other counties get. No less protection. No more protection. Equal protection.

If it is true, as Coleman alleges, that absentee ballots having X, Y and Z characteristics were counted in some counties, but excluded in others, that would seem to be counter to the Constitution and the principal of equality.

Those discrepancies must be corrected. Even if sorting it out means I don’t get my heaping helpin’ of Senate representation for another few months. Even if, heaven forbid, the appeal ultimately means I get the lesser of the two dweebs as my Senator.

Does my support for Coleman’s appeal mean I relish more time observing the recount’s ridiculous brand of kabuki theater? It most certainly does not. But the election must be decided based on constitutional applications of the law, not by the relative entertainment value of the proceedings, as defined by the impatient masses.

Does this mean I think that election officials in some counties stole the election from Coleman. Absolutely not. If there are differeing standards, I have no reason to believe that they aren’t honest mistakes. But honest mistakes can disenfranchise as surely as corruption.

Does this mean I see no problem with Minnesota being underrepresented in the U.S. Senate? Nope. I agree, that it’s a big problem. And if Coleman is appealing simply to truncate Franken’s term and increase the slope of Obama’s policymaking climb, he may be earning himself a non-term limited seat in Hades.

Does it mean that I think there is merit to Coleman’s equal protection argument? No. From my place in the cheap seats, I can’t know whether there is merit. I don’t have access to the evidence, and such a determination is above my pay grade. But if the possibility exists, I want the courts to sort it out, and give me maximum confidence in our election system. Because this is an issue that really matters.

Finally, does my support of Senator Coleman’s appeal mean that I think he is a righteous champion of the Constitution and fair electioneering. No way. Based on what I’ve seen from Coleman over the years, this is a guy who will do whatever it takes to cling to power. It is very likely that he is snuggling up to an equal protection defense simply because it is his last best hope for preserving his membership in the world’s most exclusive club.

But just because the appeal reeks, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.


Political Gymnastics

backflip2Senator Norm Coleman, in possession of a narrow electoral lead the day after Election Day, November 6, 2008:

“I would step back (from challenging election results). I just think the need for the healing process is so important.”

Former Senator Norm Coleman’s attorney, facing a narrow deficit after a recount, January 5, 2008:

“I have no reason at this time … to believe we aren’t going to be contesting this thing if we’re down at the end of the day.”

– Loveland

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A Fresh Start for Al

al_franken2A keen observation from Captain Obvious: Al Franken has an image problem.

During the campaign voters heard and read the recovering comedian using naughty words, brainstorming jokes about rape, and occasionally stretching the truth in relentless criticism of his opponent. And there is residual damage. Lots of it.

Well, New Years is the season of renewal. So, today Al Franken should start his post-campaign reputation transition from campaign attack dog to thoughtful leader of all Minnesotans. He can begin that process by issuing a statement that goes something like this:

Based on my narrow lead in the recount, many of my supporters in Washington and Minnesota are calling for me to be seated in the Senate.

While I appreciate their support, I would ask them to cool their jets.

I have said from the beginning that we should be respectful of this process, and let it play out completely. I have said the integrity of this process is more important than whether I win or lose.

And I meant it. Sincerely. My concern for the integrity of our democratic processes doesn’t change just because I have a slim lead, and just because there are bad feelings left over from a brutal campaign. We still have to let this process play out completely, and that includes Senator Coleman’s legal challenges. Legal challenges are a legitimate part of this process. While I strongly dispute the content of those challenges, I strongly support the Senator’s right to make them.

So, let’s count the votes, and let the entire judicial appeal process play out. Believe me, nobody is more anxious about bringing this process to an end than me. But to bring Minnesota together, it is much more important that we have a complete and fair process that Minnesotans can believe in than whether I enter the Senate next week, the following week, or ever.

Exhibiting a little statesmanship and selflessness would go a long way for Franken right now. Frankly, I’m not sure he has it in him. Jesse Ventura never had it in him, and it cost him in the long run. Franken would be helping both himself and the state by calling off the partisan dogs for another few weeks.

Now just like the salad I’m having for lunch today won’t make up for my gluttonous sins over the past month, such a statement wouldn’t make up for all the gripes Minnesotans have with Franken. But like all New Years resolutions, it would give him a shot at a fresh start.

– Loveland

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Election System Enema

ballotBy national standards, Minnesota has a very good election system. And for all our griping about the U.S. Senate recount, this recount will serve to make our elections even better.

First, over the years well-meaning but misinformed election judges apparently have been rejecting legal absentee ballots, inadvertantly disenfranchising thousands of Minnesotans in the process. We learned this when the recount uncovered over 1,600 absentee ballots that were rejected for no valid legal reason. The recount is serving as an seminar for election judges on this issue. Also, I would imagine absentee ballots will be redesigned by policymakers to make them easier to fill out correctly.

Second, we’re identifying technological weak links, such as the outdated Eagle scanning equipment in St. Louis County, which, the recount revealed, had been error prone. The embarrassing publicity around that should lead to those machines being replaced.

Third, we’re clarifying standards for ruling on ambiguous ballots. The work the State Canvassing Board and the State Supreme Court will be doing in the coming days clarifying standards will be instructive to election judges statewide, and make future counts more accurate. It also will give us an improved roadmap for the next statewide recount.

Finally, we’re identifying dumb laws. For instance, based on an outstanding AP analysis released yesterday it looks like a significant number of ballots will be rejected because voters made an identifying mark on them, such as an initial or signature. That law apparently has roots from the days when party bosses were selling votes, and were using signed ballots as a proof-of-purchase.

These voters are being disenfranchised, and I’d be surprised if a single one is involved in a vote scanning scheme. If they are, the identifying mark would seem to make it easier to catch the scoundrels. I imagine many made their mark out of some sense of ballot security, to ensure their ballot was not lost or destroyed. Others may have been simply doodling. Others perhaps assumed that they should sign this official document, just as they sign almost every other official document they encounter.

But I suppose there is an outside chance that someone is running a vote-selling scheme. So if there are an unusual number of signed ballots in a particular jurisdiction, election judges should still have the ability to call for an investigation to see if there is a vote auction happening. But voters should have a presumption of innocence.

Before the next election, one of the best election systems in the nation will have significantly better technology, standards and laws. Call it an election system enema, something that only happens when we stumble through a historically close recount where every vote REALLY matters. It’s been an unpleasant procedure, but here’s hoping it is, ultimately, a cleansing one.

– Loveland

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The Importance of The Right Messenger

Most of the public relations around the U.S. Senate recount has come in the form of dueling flack attacks. The Franken campaign has been at least as over-the-top as the Coleman campaign, including its gratuitous mention in today’s recount briefing of the Kazeminy-Coleman FBI investigation. (Holy kitchen sink strategy, what does Kazeminy have to do with the recount??)

But I have to say the Franken campaign did some kick ass communications work yesterday when it released this video of voters who allegedly had their absentee ballots rejected illegally.

Whatever you think about the substance of the issue, this shows the importance of using the most sympathetic available messenger. When Franken’s lawyers make a legal argument about these ballots, eyes roll. But when average Minnesotans tell their personal stories around the very same issue, more eyes are opened.

Instead of using legal abstractions, this tactic uses human reactions. Instead of coming from courtrooms, it comes from livingrooms. Instead of using spreadsheets, it uses stories. Instead of coming from the head, it comes from the heart.

The messenger is the message. This is what good communications work looks like.

– Loveland

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You Be the Judge…

ballot-challengeKudos to the Star Tribune for giving us regular folks a peek at what a ballot challenge looks like. They have scanned all 2,633 challenged ballots and presented them in an easy-to-use, “You Make the Call” format. I reviewed 42 ballots and gave 18 to each Franken and Coleman and put six others aside as either ineligible, indeterminable or voting for another candidate.

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Franken Sense and Blur

Where's the Franken viewpoint? (Source: startribune.com).
The outlook of the Minnesota U.S. Senate election recount is obviously blurry. The source of much of the confusion is related to how challenged ballots should be characterized during the period before the State Canvassing Board rules on them.

FRANKEN VIEWPOINT. The Franken campaign says their count now shows them 22 votes ahead of Senator Coleman. They say that count assumes that the call the local election judge(s) originally made for each challenged ballot will be upheld by the Canvassing Board. For instance, even if a local election judge originally called a ballot a Coleman vote, and the Franken campaign has challenged that local judge’s original ruling, the Frankenistas’ count reportedly assumes that vote will end up as a Coleman vote.

COLEMAN/MEDIA VIEWPOINT. The Coleman campaign and the major media outlets are counting challenged votes differently. They are using raw data released by the Secretary of State’s office. These data are the most “official” data available, but their use effectively assumes that every challenge will be upheld by the State Canvassing Board. This is certainly a debatable assumption. By this count, the major media outlets and the Coleman campaign show Coleman with a lead of over 300 votes.

Putting aside for a moment the issues of which counting assumption is more reasonable and how the rejected absentee ballots play into all of this, I’ve been surprised and disappointed the Franken campaign’s interpretation of the count has often not been reported by reporters. I’ve seen the Franken count and arguments on liberal blogs, analytical blogs, and Franken campaign emails, but not in many mainstream news stories.

Including the Franken claims makes mainstream news stories more murky, and reporters, for very good reason, strive to give their consumers clarity and certainty. But in this case, the reality is much more blurry than the daily count released by the news media leads the public to believe. Reporters should characterize the Franken count as a “claim,” “contention” or “assertion,” because it can’t currently be verified, but it deserves to be included in the reporting, so Minnesotans are aware of both sides’ viewpoints and rationale.

– Loveland

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