Further thoughts on the recount

Think back to Florida eight years ago. There is a reasonable argument that Al Gore was duly voted, even via the electoral college, to be President of the United States, but George W. Bush was placed in that office for one and only one reason: The recount process in Florida was transformed into a circus, and the mainstream press in the United States whipped large parts of the populous and many involved in the process into a panic. The delay in determining the winner was going to damage democracy. The free world could not survive any more waiting. It did not matter that the guy running ahead was very likely to become the guy running behind if a systematic and carefully conducted recount was allowed to proceed. So the Bush appointed secretary of state and the Bush/Reagan appointed Supreme Court stuck their collective finger in the American People’s eye and placed their boy in the white house.

And that was the single worst thing that has happened to this nation in a hundred years.


Now, we have the recount process in the Minnesota Senate race to determine which of the two candidates — Al Franken or Norm Coleman — will be elected and the Republicans have tried the same tactic but with only partial success. The relatively mindless drone-like mainstream press, which I am increasingly convinced is staffed with poorly trained brain-damaged monkeys (sorry, monkeys!), is pretty much jumping on the bandwagon. They fret and they warn of disaster and they keen and whine about the lengthy process. And they use the crazy, largly meaningless numbers that spill out of the somewhat complex (but not really THAT complex) process to craft often scary and always misleading and inaccurate headlines.

In the mean time, the individuals involved are acting appropriately, systematically and calmly. And, the people involved in the process — including Republican appointed judges — are sticking their collective finger in the proverbial eye of the slick out of town lawyers sent here by the Republicans to warn us that we are going to “have another Florida on our hands.” When a Coleman Lawyer, arguing election related issues before the Minnesota Supreme court, warned that we were heading for another Florida, Judge Anderson of the court told him to stuff it. When a similar threat was made to Secretary of State Ritchie at the Canvassing Board meeting, Ritchie told him to stuff it.

Here in Minnesota, we just don’t appreciate being told that we are anything like those dim witted crackers who can’t tell a hanging chad from a manatee. We have a pretty good election system, thank you very much.

There are two things everyone must understand about this process.

First is the time thing. This thing takes time. The truth is that the state of Minnesota is not equipped to carry out a hand recount of three million votes in a day or two. Why would we be? If this state was so equipped, we should be asking hard questions of what taxpayer money is being wasted to be prepared to carry out an activity that is required only every few decades or so.

These things take time. They don’t happen too often, but when they do, they take a little time. Chill.

Second is process. Every outlet from the local Star Tribune to the Late Night Talk Shows has been making fun of the ballots that have been challenged. The press and pundits are virtually giddy about some of them. Well, listen to me, main stream press: “You have to stuff it.” Let me ‘splain. But you are going to have to listen hard because this will require rubbing together two or more brain cells. Can you do that?

Consider a series of ballots with a mark indicating what might be an effort to vote for a candidate. In one ballot, at one end of the series, the mark is a nice dark oval that fills in the oval next to one candidate’s name. At the other end of the spectrum is a big funny looking blotch that vaguely resembles a Chinese character but isn’t’, and while it sort of overlaps with one candidate’s name, it really is just floating around in space in the general vicinity. Not a clear vote for anyone.

Got that? Good.

Now, imagine the wide range of possible ballots with some kind of mark that falls between the two aforementioned marks in their level of ambiguity. Consider a set of maybe fifty ballots laid out end to end on a whopping big table, the clear vote for a candidate on one end, the crazy mark that you can’t really assign to any candidate on the other.

Now you — yes you! — alone, and all by yourself, must walk back and forth in front of this table and find the one single ballot that is definitely a vote for a particular candidate that is sitting next to the almost identical ballot that is definitely not a vote for any candidate.

You must decide where this line … the line by which we decide if a person’s vote is accepted vs. not … shall be drawn, and everyone has to obey your ruling forever thereafter.

Now, if you think you would be comfortable doing that, then you are a moron and you need to go away. We have nothing more for you here. Be gone. But I think, rather, that you would figure differently. You would figure that you’d prefer to consult with a few people. Maybe look at precedence from similar spectra drawn from different ballots that show a parallel but different situation. You might not want to draw a stark line at all. You’d want to think about it.

Well, presto and abracadabra, with this rather reasonable thought process you’ve just recreated the situation that several hundred people scattered across the state of Minnesota were in during the recount process. No one was willing, and appropriately so, to draw that line in the exact place the line would eventually be drawn. Everyone was much more comfortable challenging a few ballots that were not clearly a certain thing (or clearly not a certain thing, or whatever) in order to make sure that the totality of that those that were challenged INCLUDED and did not EXCLUDE that line between valid and invalid. You can sit on your ass and tell me that that should have been 10 percent more ballots than valid for challenging, or maybe not 15, but again, that would make you a dumb monkey. We are lucky to have one in ten valid challenges given these circumstances. One in ten means everyone is doing their job exceedingly well. One in twenty even. This is how vagueness, uncertainty, and ever changing perceptions as more information is obtained stuff works.

I know this is really hard for most reporters to understand. Really hurts the brain to think of nuance, ambiguity, and complexity. Oh Lord, will you ever get through such a thought without having a concussion? I doubt it. But like it or not, this is the way it is. The process is big, complex, a bit subtle, and it takes time.

Today the state canvassing board finished going through the ballots that were challenged by Franken during the recount. These included ballots that were slated for Coleman but that the Franken team felt were either Franken votes (rare, possibly none of these held up under scrutiny) or that were not really Coleman votes for some reason (fairly common, quite a few held up under scrutiny) or were votes that were originally not allocated to either candidate but should have been allocated to Franken (again, quite a few of these).

Today the state Supreme Court (which in Minnesota is the high court) heard arguments buy Coleman’s side to have counties stop looking at absentee ballots that are considred likely to have been inappropriately rejected. I happen to agree with Jay Weiner who predicts that they will come back with a 5-3 ruling telling Coleman to stuff it.

Today esoteric and pretty much no-where arguments were heard by the Canvassing Board (who has been looking at the ballot challenges) by Coleman’s side that funny stuff was happening with duplicated ballots. This is not going to be considered further by the canvassing board beyond a brief discussion tomorrow, I predict, and could be a court challenge later. But probably not.

Tomorrow the canvassing board returns to the job of looking at challenges. They will now do the challenges issued by the Coleman side, which outnumber the Franken challenges 2:1.

And we’ll all be watching. Patiently.


  1. #1 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    December 18, 2008

    Am I right in assuming that the ballots challenged by Coleman’s team, being more than those challenged by Franken’s team, are likely to have their challenges rejected and swing the vote back towards Franken? Not that I am giddy, just hopeful.

  2. #2 Rob W
    December 18, 2008

    I’ve got the same hope, based on the patterns we’ve seen so far. It seems pretty obvious that Coleman’s team think he will lose if the recount is allowed to be carried out fairly and in full, so I’d imagine they will be issuing a lot of challenges that are not really valid — on the off chance that some of them will be allowed.

  3. #3 Stephanie Z
    December 18, 2008

    Greg, thank you for continuing to beat this drum. Yes, we’d all be happier if these things were clearly decided on election day, but we have the system–and the law that triggered it–in place for a reason. It isn’t so politics can be injected into the vote count. It isn’t so the campaign can go on for an extra month or two. It’s so all the votes get counted the way they were supposed to, only under the glare of all the lights this time.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    December 18, 2008

    Mike: Right. When a challenge is made, it is often of a ballot that was previously not counted for the candidate that makes the challenge, but it is often for the other candidate. All else being equal, if Coleman has twice the challenges that Franken has, then there will be twice as many Franken voes popping up as the challenges are allocated.

    Stephanie: Right. What people need to remmeber is that many, many votes are not properly counted in any normal elecion even with a relatively good system like we have in Minnesota. Across the country, we systematically ignore this because, as has been shown in court decisions for a long time, we don’t care how far off a count is as long as there is no chance that the position of the candidates would be changed by these error. However, if there is that possibility to some (unknown) degree of reason, then we suddenly care a lot about each detail.

    If you look at what actually happens in a voting system like we have in Minnesota, the entire thing is geared to prepare for a recount, in that the votes are preserved and stored in a certain way, sealed, guarded, recorded, etc. None of that is needed if the initial count regardless of it’s potential errors was somehow sacred.

  5. #5 Jackal
    December 18, 2008

    Regarding your analogy, it would be great if there were an easy and quick way to line up all the ballots in order of ambiguity of intention. In reality, that in itself would seem increadibly difficult since we’re not talking about a single factor, but many possible ways of deviating from a clearly cast ballot. I would be terrible at determining what should be challenged and at deciding the challenges. When there is no clear rubric of categorization, I tend to slip into pseudo-randomness. Thank you for your work on the recount and for the continuing updates.

  6. #6 JanieBelle
    December 18, 2008

    It’s ironic that the hired gun for Coleman brings up the idea of a Florida repeat, when what’s going on is specifically to prevent a Florida repeat, and his desired course of action would be a Florida repeat.

    Rethuglicans live in some Orwellian Bizarro universe, where everything means exactly the opposite of what it does in reality.

    “We have never been at war with Eurasia”

    “Recounting the ballots is a threat to Democracy”

  7. #7 John Emerson
    December 18, 2008

    The original hurry-up panic in Florida was pretty much because Bush was ahead and couldn’t possibly gain anything by a recount. Fortunately for him, his brother was governor, and fortunately for him, the media was brain-dead or Republican.

    The business of “the US can’t endure a protracted recount” was specifically the result of Republican-staged indignation and thuggishness. They threatened chaos if they didn’t get their way, and the Supreme Court gave in. The swing voter, Justice Kennedy, as much as said that. I was disappointed at the feebleness of the Democratic operation — Franken has learned a lesson from that.

    I think that if Franken comes out ahead, which seems to me at least a 50-50 chance, Coleman will drag things out forever with lawsuits. At some point either the Senate or Pawlenty will probably end up deciding — I’m not sure, but I think that in most circumstances it would be the Senate. This is basically the constitutionally mandated process, but the Republicans will scream bloody murder. The Senate should go ahead with it and ignore the screaming.

    If the Republicans can’t win this, they’ll presumably claim fraud and try to put Sen. Franken under a cloud. But by doing that they’ll insult the whole state of Minnesota and its very careful process, and they’ll hurt themselves here even if the accusations are effective nationally.

  8. #8 Stacy S.
    December 18, 2008

    Anyone know what the “count” in the senate will be if another democrat wins? Will it be enough? (60) ??

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    December 18, 2008

    I could be wrong, but I think it is 60

  10. #10 John Emerson
    December 18, 2008

    59. That’s what Georgia was all about.

    The 60 threshold doesn’t mean much because not all Democrats are reliable. 538.com says that there are about 15 swing Senators from both parties, and to call cloture they need 8 or 9 of them.

  11. #11 Stacy
    December 18, 2008

    Thanks! 🙂

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    December 18, 2008

    John: Exactly. The Senate is in pretty good shape.

    The real reason we need Franken to win this is because he is progressive, smart, funny, and that’s OK.

    Plus he is NOT a felon, slimeball, turncoat, hypocrite zombie Republican.

  13. #13 MikeM
    December 18, 2008

    The main thing here is that, in my opinion, this should trigger a change in the laws of Minnesota. We have two clear front-runners here, neither of which will get a majority of the votes. In many races, failure to win a majority triggers an automatic runoff between the two leading candidates. That’s what should have happened here.

    There will never truly be a “winner” in this election. There will always be doubt. With 41.40% for one candidate and 41.39% for the other, large segments of the population will never consider the eventual winner, using the current laws, as the REAL winner. A runoff would solve that, even if one candidate may get 50.01% and the other 49.99%.

    I’d say this regardless of who’s ahead.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    December 18, 2008

    MM: I’m not against the concept of runoff elections, but what you say about this election simply is not true. We are quite accustom to electing on plurality. I can’t remember the last time a Minnesota governor was elected on the Majority, for instance. Whoever winds this election given the painstaking process going on now will be considered by Minnesotans as the winner and the proper representative.

  15. #15 sue
    December 18, 2008

    I like the way you can use the word “BUSH” in your post several times and be talking about entirely different, yet somehow similar, individuals. Nice.

  16. #16 Andrew
    December 18, 2008

    I agree that there will be a winner and the voters will get over any uncertainty right away. After all, had there not really been a ‘winner’ in 2000, there would have been a revolution by now.

  17. #17 Elizabeth
    December 18, 2008

    The basic problem with the press is that things are not changing quickly enough. Slow moving stories, for what ever reason, cause reporters to spin their wheels, and spinning wheels are louder (and smellier) than the other kind of wheels.

    Poorly said, but you get my point.

  18. #18 j.b.
    December 18, 2008

    Shame indeed.

  19. #19 Dale FL
    December 18, 2008

    Here in Minnesota, we just don’t appreciate being told that we are anything like those dim witted crackers who can’t tell a hanging chad from a manatee.

    I didn’t know that you Minnesotans were such bigoted assholes.

  20. #20 xavier
    December 18, 2008

    I see your point about the spectrum being hard to analyze, but I really would have thought that a fifty-fifty split (of real vs. possible) would be more likely.

  21. #21 Gemnology
    December 18, 2008

    I think that in the long term there is a good argument for runoffs, but I don’t think it is reasonable to expect that runoffs will reduce the number of close contests. Just as likely, they may even increase the number of close calls, as we seem to be living in a country basically split fifty-fifty on most issues, with third party candidates drawing more often from one rather than the other of the candidates. This means that three way races will usually split more clearly than two way races. This Minnesota race is something of a fluke.

  22. #22 Stephanie Z
    December 18, 2008

    Dale, who says Floridians appreciated it being said about them? The point is that it was propaganda.

  23. #23 Tex
    December 18, 2008

    Hey, Dale! Join the club. It seems to be the practice of this blogger to insult entire states worth of people for their own good. We Texans are taking it in the quarter horse all the time.

  24. #24 Joshua Zelinsky
    December 18, 2008

    Greg you said: “And that was the single worst thing that has happened to this nation in a hundred years.”

    I’m sorry but that sort of hysteria is really not helpful. The Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK and RFK, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina are all examples of things that one can easily argue were much worse than the selection of George W. Bush as the President for the first term.

  25. #25 Claire
    December 18, 2008

    “In the mean time, the individuals involved are acting appropriately, systematically and calmly.”

    I have been watching the live feed and I concur. They can get a little giddy but they are just doing their job. They are holding back more than most would at making fun of some of the odder voting patterns that they are observing.

  26. #26 notanape
    December 18, 2008

    I came here from Pharyngula. You are more of an asshole than Myers. Didn’t think that was possible.

  27. #27 Dale FL
    December 18, 2008

    I just think he shouldn’t talk. I believe the system of voting in Minnesota is also with paper ballots that each have to be examined. We had hanging chads you have blotches of ink and flying spaghetti monsters on your ballots, and who is laughing at who?

  28. #28 Claire
    December 18, 2008

    Dale … I have been watching the process in MN and I watched it if FLA to the extent that one could, and these are not the same level of circus at all. The difference is not only in the press coverage but in the system itself. A chad can hang up a voter (to coin a phrase) even if the voter does not mess up. The very small number of utterly bizarre votes in Minnesota is very small. The system itself does not seem to be contributing to the mess, if you see what I am getting at.

  29. #29 Elizabeth
    December 18, 2008

    Joshua, not really. Remember, his statement started “there is a reasonable argument that” … and the stealing of the election by George Bush can be argued to have been a pretty bad thing. A coup in a democracy is always one of the worst things that can happen.

    As to the comparative list of events: Personally I would have cut off a couple of decades to skip the depression. One could exclude WW I and II because they were not things that happened to the US but were global events.

    Hurricane Katrina WAS George Bush. 9/11 WAS George Bush. I’m assuming that Laden means to count the whole eight years plus the next few as we struggle with the new Great Depression.

    The jury is out, but I don’t think it was that much of an exaggeration.

  30. #30 Stephanie Z
    December 18, 2008

    OK, Dale, a little more background: The people who said that Floridians were yahoos who couldn’t handle a recount, much less produce anything worth recounting, were the Republicans who wanted it settled quickly by the court. I think Greg is saying y’all should have screamed a little more loudly about being characterized that way, although that was tough to do with the governor you had representing you, but that’s all he’s saying about Floridians.

  31. #31 Rob
    December 18, 2008


    Why subject yourself to something you admittedly find repulsive?

    Why roll in shit if you don’t have to?

    FFS, find something you like to do.

  32. #32 Greg Laden
    December 18, 2008

    Regarding my single worst comment: Let me rephrase and clarify:

    Yes, I would be good to shorten the interval, and and “one of the.” Then it is dead on. But to clarify more, what I REALLY mean is the worst single event leading to a broader range of events. Had this not happened, the decision to stop the recount, then bush would not have been elected (according to the premise of the argument which, as someone pointed out, is merely a premise) and if Bush was not elected then….

    Fill in the blank. Just make sure yo have a really, really BIG blank to fill in. And it’s going to take a while. And yes, Katrina can be put in that blank and 9/11 too. Not the events, but the huge negative consequences that came out of them because Bush was in charge.

    In short, it is very hard to see how eight years of arguably the worst president ever during a time when the US is at peak power is matched by much else, and the single event of hysteria over Florida can be blamed for this.

  33. #33 frog
    December 18, 2008

    GL: The delay in determining the winner was going to damage democracy.

    Great line. The practice of democracy was going to damage democracy! That’s the kind of doublethink we’ve been living through, where even the possibility of questioning the system is a threat to “Our Way Of Life”.

    Can’t we kill & bury the ’50s once and for all?

  34. #34 MikeM
    December 18, 2008

    Greg, there’s one practical reason I disagree with you on your answer to my point: It would have been cheaper to do a runoff than to do what they’re doing now. In all likelihood, you’d have a very clear winner at this point. I’m not sure this will be done in time for the Senate to swear in now. There’s a point in time where the countin’ has to stop.

    Had that time been November 4 — and it easily could have — the election would have been December 2, and almost certainly would have produced at least a 2 point edge. You’d be done now, for probably less money. You would have a clear winner, for cheaper.

    I’ve logged on to the Secretary of State’s website, where they reproduce some of the absolutely loonie ballots people submitted. I do not envy those counters.

    By the way, I think a runoff would not only have produced a 2+ point, easy-call winner, but it would have been Franken. So as things go now, in my opinion, the wrong guy is ahead. I don’t like that.

  35. #35 varlo
    December 18, 2008

    But notanape is clearly an authority on assholes, being equipped with one on both ends of the alimentary canal.

  36. #36 Greg Laden
    December 18, 2008

    Mike: I’m sure you are right, and in this case, there are other reasons it would be better. The third party effect in this case is a little strange.

    My only point is that we are accustom to doing it this way, and once a person is elected and doing their job, issues like exactly what sort of majority or non-majority someone gets go away. Even the whole “mandate” thing for a winner who has a large margin is something that becomes (often) a non-factor.

    Sobering thought: John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon.

  37. #37 Noni Mausa
    December 18, 2008

    “Single worst thing…”

    I have long thought it was likely that Bin Laden would have postponed the 9/11 strike if a levelheaded statesman had been elected (Dem or Rep) instead of the diametric opposite.

    In the early days following 9/11 Bush was possessed of world sympathy and huge political capital. A sitting president could have done practically anything he chose with that power, and in the hands of a statesman could have achieved great things for America.

    Instead, Mr.CFIT did what he chose, and what he chose led to Iraq, the Katrina failure, the housing and financial bubbles, and (probably) the first worldwide depression of this millennium. Bush’s choices did more harm to the USA than any two armies in the world could have achieved. And that harm wasn’t just the big things — look at the small everyday costs of Customs, crazy airport security, reduction of high quality students and immigrants to the USA, the grinding down of the military and the reserves… hell, the damage has got in everywhere.

    Another of your comments: “I know this is really hard for most reporters to understand.”

    Please cut the press some slack. Most of us have been around long enough to have learned a thing or two and had the dewy freshness worn off us. If there are boneheads on TV, radio and in the press, (and O God are there) it’s because their bosses hired boneheads or fired the people who were not sufficiently barycephalic. An editor can see within a week or so whether a reporter is any good or not, and it’s not like there’s a shortage.


  38. #38 sailor
    December 18, 2008

    Greg may be right about the “single worst thing”, after all even after Pearl Harbor, the resulting war was only half the length of the US fiasco in Iraq to date, and led to the USA becoming the dominant superpower.
    On the other hand, think of it this way – if Gore had won, things would have been better, but we almost certainly would not have Obama (without George Bush, and a complete economic meltdown I doubt he would have made it) so better / worse who knows? life is what it is and goes on…..

  39. #39 Stephanie Z
    December 18, 2008
  40. #40 Greg Laden
    December 18, 2008

    WCCO is saying two.

  41. #41 Stephanie Z
    December 18, 2008

    Eh, I’ll take either. 🙂

  42. #42 tom p
    December 19, 2008

    Wouldn’t the fairest (and ultimately quickest) method be to scan all the ballots and then blank out the names. Crop the ballot to the disputed area and enlarge massivley.
    Store that with a unique code number which links back to an individual ballot, for cross-checking to ensure that there’s no fraud in the scanning system).
    You could then, quite easily, have a fairly large number of people look at each disputed area without fear of bias. Once this is completed, with all the people having clicked the button representing the top/bottom oval or stating that it’s indeterminable, you then unblind and assign the majority verdict to that person. Since there’s 3 million minnesotans, a couple of hundreds clickers would be a reasonably statistically robust sample (although someone with a better knowledge of stats than me would be able to confirm that).
    That way no individiual has responsibility for determining whether a vote is valid or not, they’re subsumed into the mass.
    The necessary software and hardware could even be federally created and stored so that when a state has such a problem they’ve got a system ready to go (if it’s once every couple of decades for each state, then every election or every other election one state or another will need to use it).

  43. #43 Greg Laden
    December 19, 2008

    Tom: Something like that might work, but that is only one of the issues with these ballots.

  44. #44 Horwood Beer-Master
    December 19, 2008

    So spending time finding out who got the most votes “damages democracy”?