Dayton gains a bit as quiet recount starts
ST. PAUL -- Recount 2010 started quietly Monday, with one exception, as Mark Dayton picked up a mere 24 votes in the Minnesota governor race.
Democrat Dayton extended his lead over Republican Tom Emmer to 8,794 votes out of 2.1 million ballots cast. Dayton picked up 20 votes while Emmer lost four as 44.7 percent of Nov. 2's votes were recounted Monday.
The statewide, state-funded recount will last several days, but nearly 60 of the state's 87 counties wrapped up their work in a single day.
One exception to a peaceful recount opening was in southwest Minnesota's Renville County, where the count showed a one-vote change at the end of the day, but the 6,300 ballots counted produced 422 challenges by the Emmer camp that County Auditor Larry Jacobs deemed frivolous.
Jacobs said the 422 challenges, all Dayton votes, were made by Emmer representatives who took the action because ballots had writing on them, including a large number with write-in candidates.
The 422 challenged ballots were counted, but the Minnesota State Canvassing Board could re-examine them next month.
Jacobs said a representative for Emmer's office apologized for the large number of challenges, but said he had been instructed to challenge any ballots with writing on them. State Republican Chairman Tony Sutton could not explain why there were so many Renville challenges, by far the most in the state.
Otherwise, relatively few changes and problems were reported in the first day of recounting.
Sutton remained optimistic even though Emmer lost some ground.
"There still are a lot of votes to be counted, especially in areas where we see some problems," he said.
Republicans claim there may be voting irregularities in larger counties such as Hennepin, Ramsey and St. Louis.
The odds are against Emmer. No Minnesota recount ever has overcome a deficit as large as he faces after the Nov. 2 election.
Dayton's recount chief was happy.
"There doesn't seem to be a lot of monkey business going on," Ken Martin said, adding that the recount was going "remarkably smoothly."
Dayton sent nearly 2,000 people to recounting sites; Emmer fielded 600. About 100 volunteers and staff members manned the Dayton state headquarters, while a dozen were in the Republican Party offices working for Emmer.
Election officials sorted ballots, placing them in piles for Emmer, Dayton and other candidates. The two campaigns may challenge decisions about who the voter wanted, in which case the State Canvassing Board may decide voters' intent when it meets next month.
Most of the challenges were determined to be frivolous by election officials, and they were included in the overall count the secretary of state's office released Monday night. However, 281 Emmer challenges and 86 by Dayton were not deemed frivolous, and who gets those votes will be determined by the state board.
Counties have until Dec. 7 to finish their work. The State Canvassing Board is to begin a round of meetings the next day to examine ballots where questions remain. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie set a goal of the board determining the winner by Dec. 14, but the loser could take the election to court in a lengthy process.
A new governor is to be sworn in on Jan. 3.
Monday's work was in stark contrast to that of the U.S. Senate recount two years ago, which Martin said featured "hand-to-hand combat over every ballot."
The work Monday often was more of a reunion of those involved in 2008's recount than a battle.
In Hubbard County, for instance, workers greeted one another and auditor's staff as old friends.
Many assumed the seats in Park Rapids they had taken in 2008, with one telling photographers, "You could just use one of the old pictures."
"It's been going fine," Goodhue County official Carolyn Holmsten said. "People have been very good and respectful from both campaigns."
In Moorhead, Clay County Auditor Lori Johnson had a story typical of most counties: Representatives of Dayton and Emmer each challenged just one ballot. In both cases, a question was raised about voter intent.
In Duluth, 24 ballots from one rural St. Louis County precinct went missing for a few minutes, but were quickly found in another envelope. And even in the relatively large county, only seven ballots were challenged.
The atmosphere in St. Louis County was less tense than during the 2008 Senate recount, which saw more national attention and more high-priced attorneys in the county board room. That race ultimately was decided by 312 votes and a state Supreme Court decision -- but not for nearly eight months after the election.
Carlton County Auditor-Treasurer Paul Gassert noticed a big difference.
"That's quite a change from two years ago," said Gassert, implying that new restrictions on the types of challenges that can be made have cut down dramatically on the number of ballots questioned.
New, tougher ballot-challenge rules were tested in Washington County, in the eastern Twin Cities, when an Emmer recount observer challenged that a blank ballot be counted for the Republican. The challenge was deemed frivolous by Carol Peterson, the county's election administrator.
In Beltrami County, where recounting ended at 2 p.m., just two ballots were challenged, both by Dayton representatives. The challenges came over machine-counted over-votes, meaning more than one candidate was voted on. County Auditor Kay Mack ruled that in both cases, voters blackened out one candidate and then crossed it out, filling in the Emmer oval.
Lake County election officials said some lessons likely were learned in the 2008 recount. The ballots were cleaner, with fewer stray marks, they said. The one challenged Lake County ballot had ovals filled in for Emmer and Tom Horner, with the Horner oval crossed out.
In west-central Minnesota's Willmar, no problems were reported in the Kandiyohi County recount. Besides official representatives for Dayton and Emmer who kept a close eye on how the ballots were sorted and counted, at least a dozen other people watched the Kandiyohi procedure. Most were Dayton supporters.
As in other counties, Douglas County officials in Alexandria made sure the ballots were secure.
When workers took a break from the recount from noon to 1 p.m., one election official and a deputy sheriff stayed in the room.
Forum Communications Co. newspapers from across Minnesota contributed to this story. Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.