Townhall article: What really happened in the Franken-Coleman recount

A few months ago, when the daily machinations of the Minnesota recount had everyone’s attention, Townhall Magazine approached me for an in-depth article on the subject.  The story kept getting postponed as the recount process lengthened with the various challenges, but I began talking to people on the ground for Norm Coleman’s team to find out how Franken had taken the lead during the recount phase.  After the entire process ended with Coleman’s concession, I talked with more people and wrote a lengthy report on what really happened and how Al Franken won the election recount.

That story appears in this month’s Townhall Magazine, which should be arriving shortly for those who already subscribe.  It’s not available on line, but here’s a taste of my report:

The Franken team had a clear mission. Since they were behind in votes, they needed to either find new Franken votes or discredit Coleman votes in order to close the gap. Learning from the Gregoire campaign, they trained their volunteers to understand the limits of Minnesota law and to aggressively challenge ballots.

Coleman’s team, on the other hand, had a much more delicate mission, as they explained to their volunteers. Each of the precinct workers interviewed for this story had the same description of the instructions given by the campaign: Do not get overly aggressive in challenging ballots. They did not want to be seen as the campaign that “disenfranchised” Minnesota voters, as successful ballot challenges do by removing ballots from the count.

One Coleman volunteer explained the instruction as an explicit message from Team Coleman that “we don’t expect to be in the business of suppressing Franken votes, and we’re not trying to find new Coleman votes. … Don’t go out of your way to make what we think will be frivolous challenges.”

This instruction came specifically about overvotes, where a voter filled in two or more bubbles on the same race, which would have led the counting machines to reject the ballot for that race. Franken’s team latched onto the overvotes and tried to argue on as many as possible that the intent of the voter was to support Franken. Coleman’s team knew from the beginning that Franken’s volunteers would use that strategy, another Coleman recount worker said, but that “we should not engage them like that.”

But according to Minnesota law, as the state discovered during the process, the question of voter intent on overvotes is a legitimate area of challenge in a recount. In this case, it appears that both campaigns understood the parameters of action, but Coleman’s team simply didn’t want to avail itself of the entire range of action allowed by Minnesota statutes. They trained their recount volunteers to engage only on the most obvious cases and to refrain especially from giving the appearance that the Republicans wanted to invalidate ballots on a massive scale.

Predictably, this led to many missed opportunities for Coleman challenges. Because of the training received, the GOP volunteers assumed that many of the Franken team’s challenges in the precincts were invalid and would be tossed out by the Canvassing Board, the bipartisan panel that ruled on each challenged ballot. They were shocked to see the types of challenges later upheld by the panel, and they lamented the passive manner of the Coleman team’s recount effort, especially in the opening days. One volunteer estimated that he could have produced between 10-20 ballot challenges himself that the Canvassing Board would have upheld, based on their later rulings.

Franken’s team didn’t rest on its organizational edge during the recount, either. They gathered information from all the precinct recounts, even using tally sheets to note trends on questionable ballots, and apparently analyzed them overnight. Coleman volunteers recall seeing coordinated efforts to focus on new issues almost every day from their counterparts during the process.

None of the people involved, most of them GOP partisans, believed that Franken “stole” the recount or did anything illegal. All of them insisted that the difference came down to two different approaches.  Team Coleman wanted a collegial, Minnesota-style approach, while Franken’s team saw this as an adversarial process that pushed both teams to use every legal advantage available for each client.  Put more simply, Coleman got outboxed, and badly, especially in the early days of the recount.

That’s a lesson Republicans need to learn.  Gone are the days when Congressional and especially Senate recounts will get conducted as a collegial effort between two candidates who want to act as referees as well as litigants.  Both sides had better be prepared for a process that looks a lot more like a lawsuit — or maybe a divorce — than anything else.  That includes preparation for a recount in races that look close months before the election.  Franken did all of these things, which is the reason he’s sitting in the Senate now.

Be sure to get your copy of Townhall Magazine soon, and read it all.

Note: When you do get your copy of it, you will notice this headline on the cover: “How Did This Happen? Al Franken and the Democrats Stole the Election as the GOP Stood By, by Ed Morrissey.”  I didn’t write that headline, and that’s not what the article says.  I argue the opposite and advise in the article that the “stolen” meme will prevent Republicans from learning the lessons of the Minnesota recount, so I think the headline was an unfortunate choice.

Update: I don’t mean to make this as critical of Norm Coleman as it sounds.  I think one  commenter put it best by saying that Coleman acted in the spirit of the law while Franken acted to the letter of the law.  It’s hard to criticize the former approach, but one has to recognize when the opposition will use the latter approach and adjust accordingly.  There’s a lot more in the article, so be sure to get your hands on a copy.