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Al Franken and the WSJ


With the news last week that the Minnesota Supreme Court declared Al Franken the winner over incumbent Norm Coleman of the state’s second Senate seat, I almost wrote about his victory and how pleased I was to see one of my college classmates join the Senate. But I didn’t have much more to say than that, so I let it go. And then I read the editorial on the matter in last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal and was stunned to find them accusing him of stealing the election:

The unfortunate lesson is that you don’t need to win the vote on Election Day as long as your lawyers are creative enough to have enough new or disqualified ballots counted after the fact. … Mr. Coleman didn’t lose the election. He lost the fight to stop the state canvassing board from changing the vote-counting rules after the fact.

This is now the second time Republicans have been beaten in this kind of legal street fight. In 2004, Dino Rossi was ahead in the election-night count for Washington Governor against Democrat Christine Gregoire. Ms. Gregoire’s team demanded the right to rifle through a list of provisional votes that hadn’t been counted, setting off a hunt for “new” Gregoire votes. By the third recount, she’d discovered enough to win. This was the model for the Franken team.

Mr. Franken now goes to the Senate having effectively stolen an election. If the GOP hopes to avoid repeats, it should learn from Minnesota that modern elections don’t end when voters cast their ballots. They only end after the lawyers count them.

Um, they can’t be serious, can they? In both Minnesota and Washington, the rules were followed. If they want to talk about stolen elections, they’re barking up the wrong trees. There’s a little election in November 2000 that might be worth reviewing.

The next day, writing in his blog, Paul Krugman helped me better understand what’s up at the WSJ:

… yesterday’s editorial asserting that the Minnesota senatorial election was stolen.

All of this is par for the course; the WSJ editorial page has been like this for 35 years. Nonetheless, it got me wondering: what do these people really believe?

I mean, they’re not stupid — life would be a lot easier if they were. So they know they’re not telling the truth. But they obviously believe that their dishonesty serves a higher truth — one that is, in effect, told only to Inner Party members, while the Outer Party makes do with prolefeed.

The question is, what is that higher truth? What do these people really believe in?

Update: On reading this post, Gail pointed me to an excellent article in the British newspaper The Guardian. It notes (italics mine): “Hand-counted paper ballots proved, yet again, to be the gold standard in this election, which the state canvassing board, the three-judge election contest panel and now the state’s supreme court has affirmed as won by Franken, the former radio talkshow host and comedian, by a mere 312 votes. Minnesota’s excellent election law, requiring both the secretary of state and the governor to sign the election certification only after all election contests are settled in the state, has assured that the next senator from Minnesota will not serve under a cloud of suspicion. Only the most insane and/or disingenuous could challenge the findings from one of the longest and most transparent election hand-counts in the history of the US.”

Categories: Newspapers, Politics
  1. wkernochan
    July 7, 2009 at 2:48 PM

    Hi Ron – I couldn’t resist, as while I was waiting for Aberdeen Group to implode I happened across a couple of pieces of eye candy, one a contributor to http://www.dailykos.com called winerev, one a local minn. video feed with live comments by followers called (I think) http://www.theuptake.com. I followed both between late nov. and early april (when things quieted down), and the comedy of errors was amazing (winerev is now said to be writing a book based on his blog posts):
    1. Right after the election, Norm Coleman called on Franken to concede. Norm’s margin was about 250 votes; state law required a recount if the margin was within about 30,000 votes, iirc. Shortly thereafter, Norm’s margin moved down to 60-odd votes.
    2. The recount set up a 3-person procedure in each county for ballots potentially changing the count, with challenges by lawyers from each side fed to a 5-person (equal party representation) board at the state level. Coleman’s lawyers initially began challenging everything that moved in democratic precincts, under the reasonable theory that any added votes were more likely to be franken’s. Unfortunately, they did it in such a heavy-handed fashion that at the next stage (review at the state level by 5 commissioners, equal party representation) the review went unanimously against most of their objections.
    3. The state-wide review articulated state-wide standards for change of vote count, and did a ballot- by-ballot examination. Coleman’s lawyers at first attempted to establish very strict standards in order to rule out most ballot changes, but were rebuffed; they then attempted to make the standards even looser for Coleman-leaning districts, and were rebuffed again. Thus, they were on record as accepting the judgment of the review and as wanting all of the votes that they would later need to be excluded. At the end of the review, Franken was up by 200-odd votes, with most of the review committee’s judgments unanimous.
    4. Coleman then took the issue before an appointed state court (3 judges, equal party representation). The issue was supposed to be failure to count 24,000 votes that “should have been counted” and a pattern of wide variations in county standards. The judges began by asking the lawyers to show examples of ballots not counted. They produced about 6 witnesses, of whom all were Republican, and all but 1 turned out to be correctly disallowed (e.g., one woman whose boyfriend had registered/voted for her). In the next phase, they asked the lawyers to show by testimony problems with the county procedures. They produced one Republican county worker to say that she had concerns that some ballots had been omitted. Unfortunately, it became very clear that the worker (a) had no basis for the claim, and (b) had been coached by the lawyers, without the lawyers notifying the court. Coleman’s lawyers were fined for that one — a very rare thing, indicating really bad misconduct. After that, the judges asked the lawyers to come up with standards to be applied to all remaining ballots (at this point, about 11,000) and unanimously chose the set that fit the law — which left about only 4000 or less still at issue. Coleman’s lawyers’ objections were undercut by the fact that they had already agreed to such a procedure and were already on record as saying all of the 11-24,000 should be thrown out. The final unanimous decision added 60 more votes to Franken’s total (because an independent Democrat had identified and proved 60-odd cases where the count had indeed made a mistake). Had Franken wanted to, he probably could have added 60 more, or, if the standards had been loosened, another 500-1000 beyond that. Most legal experts judged the resulting opinion as about as close to “this cannot be overturned” as humanly possible.
    6. Throughout, the WSJ periodically issued comments which basically reflected the Coleman/lawyer mantra that “there’s something fishy going on”, without the ability to go into specifics — since, legally, there was no specific case in which they had a leg to stand on.
    The more interesting question is whether this close an election really was a statistical tossup in which some standards would have resulted in a different result, or whether a “loose” vs. “strict” standard was the deciding factor. Watching the examination of the ballots unfold, it was clear to me that (a) just about any consistent application of strict but not unreasonable standards would have led to Franken winning by a narrow margin, and (b) the looser the standards and the greater the effort to determine the voter’s intent, the more Franken would have won by. The key reason was that Franken emphasized mail-in voting to pull in more voters, like students and the elderly. The mail-in procedure was pretty easy to screw up, as it was very specific and written in a way that was a bit ambiguous — the person running theuptake, who was clearly a well-qualified voter, was himself initially disqualified because a recent movement within a town had not been reflected in the county records, as came out in the trial. I conclude that (a) the best of electoral procedures is still a ways from capturing the “true” vote in an election, and (b) far from letting too many incompetents vote, most electoral procedures err on the side of ruling out even competent voters — which in the past has tended to benefit the Republican party primarily.

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