Minnesota Case Study of Electoral Imperfection
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In the fall of 2008, I was working in the Star Tribune newsroom as a government and political editor, overseeing a capable team of exhausted reporters relieved to come to the end of coverage of a race in the US Senate bitterly disputed between the incumbent Republican Norm Coleman and the Democratic challenger Al Francken.
But instead of enjoying a well-deserved rest after a decisive election night, we spent the next eight months, practically every blessed day, trying to make sense of one of the longest and most difficult election disputes. complexes of American history. (Neither side meekly accepted defeat when behind.)
I usually only discuss memories of those endless months with mental health professionals. But I’m provoked to reminisce by the current debate over election laws, and in particular by current claims, mostly from Democrats, that Minnesota’s electoral system is downright Mary Poppins-esque — practically perfect in every way. .
If so, the system has come a long way in 14 years. To be sure, the heated national dispute over election law isn’t just about Minnesota. And it’s not just about grueling race between outgoing DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon – who thinks Minnesota’s elections could only be improved by making them even more open and accessible – and GOP challenger Kim Crockett, who thinks many rules should be strengthened, on early and mail-in voting, voter identification and more .
I’m not an election denier — I firmly, if not happily, confess that Joe Biden is my president. But I’m definitely a perfection denier, and especially in regard to the government of the State of Minnesota. Among many other episodes, 2008-09 earned me this privilege.
This very fall, as we all watch the Feeding Our Future scandal unfold – or should we do this “Feeding our Faces”? – or the mismanagement of multi-million housing assistance grants documented last month by the legislative auditor – and with these being only the latest in what have become perennial state downfalls ( think licensing snafus, long-term care regulatory failures, child protection tragedies, etc., etc.) – as we watch all of this, are we really supposed to believe that in this one arena, the elections, Minnesota’s processes could not benefit from scrutiny?
As proof of near-blamelessness, we are regularly offered the reassuring fact that only a handful of voter fraud convictions occur.
Well, a fair number of Minnesotans are ticketed for speeding or arrested for drunk driving. But no one assumes for a moment that these tickets and arrests are responsible for all, or more than a fraction of, drunk driving and speeding incidents. Some abuses can only be deterred.
The best reason to believe that voter fraud is rare is that it has little incentive. To make a difference in the vast majority of elections, fraud would have to occur on an implausible scale.
Deliberate cheating is not the main risk. Errors, confusions and inconsistencies create the greatest risk of votes being miscounted.
Sometimes elections are extremely close. In 2008-09, Franken came from behind in the recount to secure a winning margin of 312 votes out of over 2.9 million votes, or roughly one vote in 9,300.
Every election is an incredibly complicated, large and messy enterprise, involving millions of voters and thousands of venues, officials and volunteers. Mistakes and conflicting interpretations of the rules are inevitable – but in the vast majority of contests the margins of victory are large enough that misses make no difference. Yet minimizing them is a laudable goal.
The problem is that an enthusiastic effort has been underway for years to make voting increasingly convenient and undemanding, and accessible to voters with special challenges, such as people with disabilities. Many of these efforts necessarily complicate the voting system and vote validation mechanisms, including dramatically increasing the reliance on mail-in or mail-in voting.
(Consider the complexity of the process just ordered by the state Supreme Court to correct the erroneous printing of a deceased legislative candidate’s name on mail-in ballots already mailed to nearly 1,000 voters in St. Paul.)
In 2008, when a voter in Minnesota still needed a specific reason to vote by mail, only about 10% of total votes were broadcast remotely. By 2020, following the advent of “no excuse” mail-in voting, extended early voting and more, less than half of all votes were traditionally cast on election day.
And that’s what stirs the thoughts of 2008-09. Even then, mail-in ballots – whether wrongfully rejected or wrongly accepted – were the main cause of trouble.
Since we don’t have eight months to go through all the details, I’m going to oversimplify. As the recount and courtroom contest unfolded, it became clear that officials in some Minnesota counties had strictly enforced rules regarding how voters filled out their absentee ballots. and their voting demands, to engaging in amateur handwriting analysis to compare signatures. Meanwhile, officials in other counties had taken a more relaxed view of the requirements, applying only what the courts have come to call a “substantial compliance” standard.
Either approach was defensible, and in most elections variations would have made no difference. But in the absurdly close Coleman/Franken clash, it seemed a little problematic that thousands of absentee ballots were rejected in some counties due to voter errors that were overlooked for thousands of other voters. who voted by mail with the same errors. in different counties.
At least that seemed like a problem for the Coleman campaign, which in the latter stages of the dispute was behind the count.
The courts did not have fully satisfactory options. Thousands of ballots accepted under lenient standards had already been counted and could not be counted. Thus, the only way to treat all voters equally and strictly maintain “equal protection of the law” would have been to reject the settlement and accept all mail-in ballots that met the interpretation most more relaxed requirements.
The Minnesota Supreme Court instead opted to apply the rules with rigor where it could, making peace with the imperfection of real-world elections.
The court wrote in his final decision that “differences in available resources, personnel, procedures and technology have necessarily affected the procedures used by local election officials reviewing absentee ballots”. But he concluded that “…an uneven application [of state law] to those who have the right to be treated equally, is not a denial of equal protection unless there is … intentional … discrimination.”
The campaign and court battle had been bitter, but in these somewhat less polarized times, this end result was accepted. Most felt the recount and trial were conducted fairly. Overall, Minnesota is rightfully proud of how it weathered something like a perfect election storm.
Even so, “the uneven application [of law] to those who have the right to be treated equally” is far from perfect. And the fact is that 2008 showed how the complexities of a mail-in voting system increase the risk of unfairness among voters when an election becomes abnormally close.
Minnesota made improvements to its mail-in/mail-out voting procedures after the 2008 ordeal. But other innovations may have produced new dangers.
Let’s not assume too quickly that everything is ideal and that every criticism is an attack on democracy.