What’s Happening In Minnesota?

When the polls closed Tuesday evening, Minnesota’s Secretary of State’s office showed that Norm Coleman had a 725-vote win in his closely contested race against Al Franken. By the next morning, however, Coleman’s victory was already shrinking. As various precincts and county auditors have “corrected” their totals, Coleman’s lead has dropped to a mere 237 votes. Minnesota Republicans are concerned that the fix may be in.

An example of the kind of thing now going on was reported in today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Just as Secretary of State Mark Ritchie was explaining to reporters the recount process in one of the narrowest elections in Minnesota history, an aide rushed in with news: Pine County’s Partridge Township had revised its vote total upward — another 100 votes for Democratic candidate Al Franken, putting him within .011 percentage points of Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman.

The reason for the change? Exhausted county officials had accidentally entered 24 for Franken instead of 124 when the county’s final votes were tallied at 5:25 Wednesday morning.

Currently, the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office shows the Franken’s total in Partridge Township as 129, not 124. Still, the Partridge story is the most coherent explanation we’ve gotten so far as to why vote totals have repeatedly been adjusted to Franken’s advantage.

Optical scan ballots are used nearly everywhere in Minnesota. The system is simple: once the polls close, absentee ballots are run through the machines with Republican and Democratic poll watchers both present. The machines are then locked down. The machine prints a tape that looks like a grocery store printout that summarizes the number of votes cast for each candidate in each race. At the same time, the totals are uploaded electronically, via a secure phone line connected to the box, to the county where the precinct is located; from there, they are reported to the Secretary of State. The tape showing the precinct’s vote totals is signed by the precinct’s election judge and is required to be publicly displayed.

There is essentially no human input here. There is no room for new ballots to be “discovered,” or for counting “errors” to be corrected. The process is electronic. My understanding had been that optical scan voting is in use in every one of Minnesota’s several thousand precincts. Based on the Strib’s account of what happened in Partridge Township, it appears this may not be the case. [UPDATE: There are some precincts that still tabulate by hand. Partridge Township, however, has an optical scanner. It’s possible that “exhausted” county officials were still tallying votes at 5:30 Wednesday morning, but it isn’t clear why they would be tallying Partridge Township’s at that point. Partridge’s totals should have come in soon after the polls closed, and counties don’t wait until all the precincts are in to report to the Secretary of State.]

Some very basic questions need to be answered. What are the precincts that have allegedly “corrected” the vote totals they originally reported? On what basis were the alleged corrections made? Did both Republicans and Democrats participate in the alleged corrections? Have the original paper ballots been securely maintained since the polls closed? What assurances are in place to prevent Democrats from fraudulently adding new paper ballots? Do the precincts that have revised their vote totals use the optical scan system that is, as I understand it, nearly universal? If not, why not? If so, what do the ballot machines’ tapes show? If the totals now being claimed are inconsistent with the tapes that were signed by the precinct’s election judges, on what basis can they be accepted? Why is it that each “correction” seems to favor Franken?

The Coleman campaign has reportedly dispatched volunteers to try to guard the security of ballots in some locations. The danger, of course, is that they could already be too late. Minnesota’s Secretary of State, a left-wing activist who was elected in 2006 after MoveOn.org and other nationwide groups targeted the Minnesota Secretary of State race, has yet to certify vote totals. If fraud is to be committed, it most likely has taken place already, or will occur before the recount begins.

UPDATE: Hot off the press, the first apparent evidence of fraud. Last night at around 7:30, a precinct in Mountain Iron, St. Louis County, mysteriously updated its vote total to add 100 new votes–all 100 for Barack Obama and Al Franken.

Mountain Iron uses optical scanning, so the Coleman campaign asked for a copy of the tape documenting the ballots cast on election night. St. Louis County responded by providing a tape that includes the newly-added 100 votes, and is dated November 2–the Sunday before the election. St. Louis County reportedly denies being able to produce the genuine tape from election night, even though Minnesota law, as I understand it, requires that tape to be signed by the election judges and publicly displayed.

Maybe there is some legitimate explanation for these events, but I haven’t thought of one yet. More to come.

FURTHER UPDATE: The Minneapolis Star Tribune has this explanation:

Reporter Mark Brunswick has talked to election officials for Mt. Iron and the county, and here’s what they say:

The precinct officials called in the correct results on Election Night: 506 for Franken, 211 for Coleman. But the county incorrectly wrote down 406 for Franken, 211 for Coleman. And that’s what was reported to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office.

Wednesday night, the Secretary of State website showed a 100-vote increase for Franken in Mt. Iron, Pct. 1.

The Coleman camp’s Cullen Sheehan says the timestamp on the ballot machine’s vote total reads: “11/02/2008″ That’s two days before the Nov. 4 election.

A county official told Brunswick that the machine’s clock must be incorrect. When they tested a machine in Mt. Iron Pct. 2 in late October, running test ballots through to make sure the machine was working properly, it also showed an incorrect date on the printout. And the printout from that Pct. 2 machine in Mt. Iron on Election Night, when it printed out the final vote tallies that remain unchanged, also shows an incorrect timestamp of Oct. 31.

Several of these assertions are subject to verification. One thing I don’t understand is why local officials called the results in to St. Louis County, which then wrote them down by hand. Precinct 1 in Mountain Iron, according to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s web site, uses an optical scanner. So the results should have been uploaded electronically to St. Louis County. Is there some reason why that system was not functioning? So far, I’ve seen no explanation. Also, the tape that was printed off the optical scanner after the polls closed on November 4 should have been signed by the election judges, both a Republican and a Democrat. Did this happen? Obviously, the tape that was given to the Coleman campaign wasn’t signed. But somewhere there should be a Republican election judge who can shed light on what happened.

UPDATE: More here and here.

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