Post-Election 2008 Senate Races

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December 16 2008 Note: The core text of this entry is finished but the links and pictures are not yet in place.  I plan to put them in over the course of the next few days.


December 17 2008 Update: All done!


There were four undecided U.S. Senate races after Election Day.  Two of them, in Oregon and Alaska, were decided in favor of the challenging Democrats once the votes had been counted.


The third, in Georgia, required a runoff between incumbent Senator Saxby Chambliss (R) and challenger Jim Martin (D).  A runoff is required if no candidate reaches 50 percent.  Sadly, Chambliss had “only” some 49.95 percent.  I was hopeful that we could win this race because now that Barack Obama had already won his election, the resources, staff, money and attention that had previously been sucked up by his campaign could now flow undivided to Martin’s campaign and we could overwhelm and crush the Republicans.  Unfortunately, that was not to be, as Chambliss won the December 2 runoff by a stunning 57.5%-43.5%.


The fourth was the one I’ve been most invested in: Minnesota.  Liberal hero and the man I want the most to become a U.S. Senator Al Franken was locked in an incredibly tight race with incumbent slimeball Senator Norm Coleman (R) for the seat once occupied by liberal titans such as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and my political hero Paul Wellstone.  Coleman has been polluting this seat with his do-nothing, care-for-nothing crony conservatism and we need Franken’s brand of openly pro-government liberalism in the Senate.



Norm Coleman (left) and Al Franken (right).  Source:


On Election Night I watched the results of this contest with nail-biting nervousness, as the early returns showed a virtual tie, with Coleman slightly ahead of Franken and Independence Party candidate former Senator Dean Barkley.  Coleman finished ahead by some 700 votes on Election Night, which amounted to something like 0.04% of the vote and mandated an automatic recount.  Over the next day that lead dwindled first to some 400 votes, then to some 300 votes.  It continued to fluctuate as more counties reported in and some counties that had already reported in corrected their totals for mistakes in counting or addition.  Finally, about two weeks after Election Day when the first count was finished, the Coleman lead had settled at 215 votes.


Then began the high drama as the manual recount began.  Since each campaign could challenge the other’s votes – that is, disagree with what the ballot judges decided as they counted each ballot – both campaigns could theoretically reduce the other side’s totals by challenging – legitimately or otherwise – their votes, since challenged ballots were not counted for either side but placed in a third pile.  So for example, if an election judge looks at a ballot and sees that the vote is obviously for Coleman, but there’s some stray mark or some other random crap near Franken’s name, the Franken campaign can say, hey that’s for Franken, and the ballot will go to neither camp but rather to the third pile, and vice versa for Coleman challenging Franken’s votes.  And those challenged ballots will be decided by a five-member election canvassing board in a process that starts… today, December 16.  This process gives both campaigns an incentive to challenge like crazy the other side’s totals and drive their numbers down so that they can look like they’re winning in the official numbers.  And challenge away they did – 6 000 challenges total, with the Coleman campaign challenging somewhat more than Franken’s.  Both campaigns have withdrawn some of their challenges since then, but it’s still high and many of them are frivolous.  Some, though, are not, as some of Minnesota’s voters found a way to make life hard for these ballot judges.  The Star Tribune published some examples of crazy ballots here.

The ability to reduce the numbers of the other side through challenges made it difficult to gauge who will end up winning in the end.  When the recount finally finished on December 5, it showed Coleman ahead by 192 votes.  However, two factors tilt in favor of Franken emerging as the ultimate victor.  First, Coleman has challenged more votes than Franken, and from what I’ve seen some of their challenges are really ridiculous.  Supposedly Coleman challenged a bunch of ballots where the voters had voted for Franken while at the same time voting for John McCain for President, on the grounds that, you know, there’s no way a person could vote for Franken and McCain, cuz, you know, that doesn’t make any sense…yeah.  The second factor is that most challenged ballots are challenged because they’re messed up, and most messed up ballots are that way because the voter is a first-time voter, or they don’t understand English, or they’re elderly.  Those voters tend to break towards Democrats and towards Franken.  So there’s a good chance that Franken will come out ahead with the challenged ballots.


There are two more X-factors to consider here.  First, hundreds of legitimately completed absentee ballots have been rejected for administrative or clerical errors.  The Franken campaign has been pushing to get those ballots counted.  It’s very possible that those ballots will break towards Franken.  Second, one precinct in Minneapolis has apparently lost 133 ballots, which counted as a net 46 votes for Franken in the first Election Day count.  As of this writing those ballots have still not been found.  On December 12, the state canvassing board decided to not only recommend the absentee ballots be counted, but that the +46 votes for Franken from the missing Minneapolis ballots would stay in place if they couldn’t find the ballots and recount them.  Both were victories for the Franken campaign.


The Franken campaign did its own internal count, where they assumed that every challenge will be rejected; that is, the canvassing board will agree with the original ballot judges in the recount in deciding who gets each vote.  Considering that most of the challenges are frivolous and the ballot judges got it right the first time in most cases, this seems like the best assumption to make.  Assuming that the +46 from the missing ballots stays in place, which the canvassing board has decided it will, the Franken campaign has claimed that it’s now ahead by 4 votes, a stunningly slim margin, but one in the right direction.


The canvassing board starts deciding on the challenged ballots today, and it could take anywhere from several days to several weeks.  Hopefully things turn out in favor of Franken, who I’m rooting hard for to win.  Personally, I hope Franken does win by 4 votes – it’d be a hilariously sweet victory.

DECEMBER 18 2008 UPDATE: With the Canvassing Board going through the Coleman challenges to Franken’s ballots, Coleman’s lead has dwindled to five votes.  Five.  And more will be counted tomorrow, surely putting Franken in the lead.  I’ll enjoy seeing Franken’s face replacing Coleman’s on the Strib’s Senate webpage.


Also, interesting little tidbit from the Strib:


One Bemidji voter blackened the oval for Franken, but also put an X through the oval and scribbled “Lizard People” on the write-in line. The board ruled twice Wednesday that writing in a person in addition to marking another oval cancels out the vote.

” ‘Lizard People’ is not a genuine write-in” because there’s no such person, argued Marc Elias, Franken’s lead recount attorney.

Wait a minute, said Chief Justice Eric Magnuson. “You don’t know that there’s not someone named ‘Lizard People.’ You don’t.”

“You’re right, you don’t know,” chimed in Coleman recount attorney Tony Trimble.

“Isn’t ‘People’ plural? How can you have an individual named ‘People?’ ” asked Ramsey County District Judge Edward Cleary, a board member.

“I think it’s silly too, but we have to judge on the face of the ballot,” Magnuson said.

“If someone wants to make a statement of some sort, they may not get their vote counted,” Ramsey County Chief District Judge Kathleen Gearin said.

Elias: “If we think it’s just a statement, then I think it’s [a vote for Franken].”

Trimble: “We know that ‘People’ can be a surname. And ‘Lizard’ can be a nickname.”

The board finally sided with Trimble and declared it an overvote, not a vote for Franken.

The voter who did this is probably laughing their ass off right now. As am I.

I love watching this recount.

DECEMBER 18 2008 UPDATE II: Okay I’m not really laughing anymore.  I actually looked into this rejected “Lizard People” ballot and at the vibrant discussion over at Nate Silver’s, which ranks with Daily Kos as my favorite blogs.


Okay, first off, here’s the ballot in question:


As you can see the voter wrote in “Lizard People” for both Senator and for President.  However, for President he actually bubbled in the write-in oval, whereas for Senate he left Lizard People unbubbled and bubbled in Franken instead.  In both cases the bubbles were also X-ed out, showing that the Xs through the bubbles are not meant to mean “I’m crossing this vote out”, but rather that it’s his particular style of bubbling in things.


As stated in the earlier update the canvassing board rejected this ballot because the write-in vote counted as a second vote, even though the bubble was not filled in.  And two votes for the same office means that you throw out the vote.


The board did rule consistently with its previous rulings, but my dispute with the board is that I think a failed write-in vote should not override or spoil a legitimate vote.  I see no reason why a write-in vote that’s not bubbled in somehow means that it’s another vote in addition to a legitimate vote.  Rather, I agree with the interpretation of some, that if there’s a write-in name, but the bubble is not filled in, and then there’s a name that DOES have the bubble filled in (which is the case here), then the voter’s intent was to present the write-in name as an option, but ultimately decide to vote for another option.  In other words, the voter here is saying, “Lizard People ought to be a candidate for U.S. Senate, and I support Lizard People’s place on the ballot, but I’m not voting for Lizard People; I’m voting for Franken.”


This is actually the very explanation that’s presented by Lucas Davenport, who has come out and identified himself as the voter who submitted the ballot in question.  Davenport lays out his position on the U.S. Senate race very clearly:


I had first written in lizard people on all of the write ins. I then went through and X’ed all the ovals for which I intended my vote, and then blackened them all in. So, yes, I intended to vote for Franken. I had no idea that a write in was an automatic vote. I assumed you still had to fill in the oval for the scanning machine to read the vote. I left “Lizard People” blank intentionally.


This confirms my interpretation, that Davenport offered Lizard People as a choice but NOT his choice.  Get it? (It also supports my interpretation that crossing out his bubbles is his way of doing things.) Unfortunately, there’s no way (that I know of) to prove that this Davenport is for sure the guy who voted on this ballot.


So if I were on the Canvassing Board, here would be the way I count votes.


Wrote in a name but did NOT bubble it in, and DID bubble in someone else: The write-in is only an endorsement of the option of that person, not an endorsement of that person themself.  Vote goes to the person that’s bubbled in.


Wrote in a name and DID bubble it in, and DID bubble in someone else: That’s a double vote – an overvote – and should be thrown out.


Wrote in a name and DID bubble it in, and did NOT bubble in someone else: That’s a vote for the write-in.


Wrote in a name and did NOT bubble it in, and did NOT bubble in someone else: That’s a vote for the write-in.


Why does a write-in vote with no bubble count if there’s no other bubble, but it doesn’t count if there is another bubble?  Because I believe that voting errors are usually unintentional.  People do not take the time and energy to go to the polling place or fill out an absentee ballot and then deliberately fuck up their vote so it won’t be counted.  If they are determined to cast a fucked-up vote, they would do so by filling in both ovals as I indicated above.  But if they write in a name with no bubble, and do NOT vote for anyone else, chances are they really want that one write-in vote to count rather than making it a throw-away vote, and they left the bubble unfilled by accident.


That doesn’t apply so well if there’s one bubble filled and one write-in bubble unfilled.  If you make that count as a double vote you’re essentially arguing that the person “forgot” to fuck up their vote by voting for two people.  I can imagine someone walking out of the polling place going, “Shit, I forgot to fill in the bubble next to Lizard People; now it won’t count!  Oh no!”  It’s harder for me to imagine someone going, “Shit, I forgot to fill in two bubbles for the same office and fuck up my vote.  Now my vote will actually be counted instead of being laughed at by the whole country and then thrown into the garbage!  OH THE HORRORS!!!”  If the person did intend to deliberately fuck up and overvote, they probably would have done so by filling in both ovals, because deliberately overvoting is a more thought-intensive process than inadvertently undervoting.  That is to say, it’s a lot easier to fuck up voting the right way than to fuck up voting the wrong way.  Or, in other words, it’s easier to make a mistake than to make a mistake in trying to make a mistake.  Usually people who are determined to make a mistake are pretty careful and deliberate in doing so.


So with the Lizard People ballot, you could interpret it two ways.  One is the interpretation that I hold: that the voter wanted the option of Lizard People (or was going to vote for Lizard People) but ultimately chose Franken instead.  The other is that the voter wanted to vote for both Franken and Lizard People but forgot to fill in the Lizard People’s bubble, and yet somehow remembered to fill in Franken’s.  You could argue that the voter bubbled in Franken and then changed his mind and wanted to vote for Lizard People but forgot to bubble in, but then wouldn’t he have crossed out Franken’s name first?  Or is he that absentminded?


Remember, the goal of the canvassing board is to determine the voter’s INTENT.  Overvotes are thrown out because the intent cannot be determined.  In this case there are three possible intentions.  One, he wanted the option of Lizard People (or was going to vote for Lizard People before changing his mind) but ultimately chose Franken.  Two, he was going to vote for Franken but then switched to Lizard People, and forgot to cross out Franken and forgot to fill in the bubble.  Three, he intended to overvote and fucked up by not filling in Lizard People’s bubble.  Which of these three intentions do you think is the most likely?


Consequently, let’s look at the results from the voter’s point of view if the ballot were to be awarded to Franken.  One, voter wanted to vote for Franken and vote ends up for Franken.  Two, voter wanted to vote for Lizard People (who has no realistic chance of winning this election anyway, and probably does not even exist) and vote ends up for Franken.  Three, voter wanted to have his vote rejected and failed, with his vote ending up for Franken.  Which of these three outcomes do you think is the most fair to the voter?  You could argue that the third outcome is unfair because now his vote will go to Franken, whom he may not like, instead of getting thrown out.  But if he took the time to fill in Franken’s bubble on his way to fucking up the ballot, that shows that at least Franken was a second choice.  It’s not like Coleman or Barkley got any honor or recognition in this glorious process of screwing up the vote.


So in conclusion, I would have ruled that the “Lizard People” write-in was just an option, not a vote, and thus there is no overvote and the ballot should be awarded to Franken.  God I wish I were on the Canvassing Board.

DECEMBER 22 2008 UPDATE: On Friday December 19 Franken finally pulled ahead of Coleman, finishing the day – and the resolution of all the disputed ballots – 251 votes ahead of Coleman.


Today the withdrawn challenges will be reallocated to the respective campaigns, and be either counted for Franken or Coleman or tossed out as bad votes.  The Franken campaign at this point predicts, using the same methodology that predicted a lead of four votes, that when all the reallocations are through, Franken will be ahead by 35 to 50 votes, which amounts to a 31 to 46 vote improvement over its previous calculation (or 31 to 46 successful challenges?).  We’ll see how things turn out.


But the process isn’t over yet.  The campaigns will still have to sort through disputed “blue folder” ballots, supposedly double-counted ballots, and 1 600 uncounted absentee ballots.  And after that, legal challenges.  It’ll be a rough ride but things look better for Franken than ever before.


And now, here’s a handy Star-Tribune widget that tracks the changes and news in the Senate drama.  I will also post the widget at the top of this entry.


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DECEMBER 22 2008 UPDATE II: The widget is not working as I hoped it would.  I’ll leave the embed codes in place (to show where they would have gone) but I’ve had success using the Star-Tribune’s actual Xanga upload tool.  Unfortunately, that tool creates a new Xanga entry.  I’ll put it up later today.

DECEMBER 24 2008 UPDATE: The withdrawn challenges have been appropriately allocated, leaving Franken with a diminished but still definitive 46 vote lead.  With the two campaigns having to hash out the details on how to count absentee ballots and a meeting to decide on the absentee ballots scheduled for January 5, this race will for sure not be wrapped up until well into the new year, most likely after the new Senate convenes on January 6.


Would Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty be able to appoint someone to the vacant Senate seat until a winner is certified?  Probably not, as the Senate seat is a temporary vacancy and not likely to be considered in need of an appointed replacement.

DECEMBER 28 2008 UPDATE: Okay, the blasted Star-Tribune widget is not working.  Well, I tried.

DECEMBER 28 2008 UPDATE II: Looks like I spoke too soon.  Behold, the Senate recount widget!

JANUARY 21 2009 UPDATE: This will probably be the last update in awhile.  Franken ended the recount with a 225 vote lead following the counting of disputed absentee ballots.  Coleman can now only gamble on winning a court challenge that pins his hopes of undoing Franken’s lead on supposed double-counted ballots and cherry-picked absentee ballots, among a few other random things.  Eric Kleefeld of TPM helpfully outlined the main Coleman arguments and shows us that the Coleman case is ridiculously thin, and unlikely to succeed both in court and in putting Coleman over the top.  And it’s ironic that the same Coleman who called on Franken to concede ASAP to “start the healing process” is now talking about how “reaching the best conclusion is never quick because speed is not the first objective, fairness is”.


Many liberals have been calling on Coleman to drop his futile challenge and concede.  I do not do the same, however, because I think, and I’ve always thought, that everyone should get their day in court.  Coleman is entitled to pressing his case in court, the same way Franken would be if he were on the losing end (and it was pretty much expected all along that whoever came out of the recount behind would go to court).  And I agree with Coleman (the current edition of Coleman, that is): the election process should be thoroughly reviewed with a fine comb so that in the end, as Minnesota’s Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty put it, “the court process will allow … everybody to say every stone was turned over, and… then [we] have more confidence in the result.”


Should Franken have been seated provisionally with the rest of the new Senators on January 6?  Minnesota law says that the new Senator can only be seated after all the legal challenges have played out, so no.  And I think that law does make sense, and that’s how I prefer it; I’d rather not see people seated until the dark cloud of lawsuits and challenges have been cleared from over their heads.  But if that’s the case, then Senator Coleman – or, I should say, former Senator Coleman – should be held by the same rules.  After all, Coleman’s term officially expired on January 3, at which point he was a Senator no more.


So whoever wins this, does not get to be seated on the 6th, but does their seniority get retroactively dated back to then?  I do think that things should be equal – if one of them gets to be retroactively “sworn in” on the 6th, then both of them should be.  That said, I think that the fairer thing to do is to have their seniority start at whatever date they’re sworn in.  I realize that Franken would be at the back of the pack, but it’d be even worse for Coleman – because there would be a break in his service from January 3 2009 to whatever date he’s sworn in, he would be going from number 67 to number 100.  Well, that sucks for them, but I don’t think that Senators should get retroactive seniority.

JANUARY 28 2009 UPDATE: One of the memes that’s been circulating around in the midst of the recount drama is that Coleman would have been a sure-fire loser in this race against most Democrats, and was only spared from a decisive defeat because his opponent was a joke named Al Franken.  Coleman himself has regurgitated that conventional wisdom, which seems a little odd as he’s on the losing end of a 225-vote difference between him and Franken.  While I agree that Franken was probably less well-received than a more generic Democrat would have been (through no fault of his own; the voting public is often simply narrow-minded and hesitant to accept any candidate outside of the usual lawyer), the idea that Coleman was a sure-fire loser seems a little overdone.  It should be noted that early polls gave other Democratic contenders about the same or less strength against Coleman as Franken had.  While those results would have surely narrowed as the general election went on, it’s difficult to confidently predict that another contender would have done better against Coleman.


Moreover, Coleman is, as Franken put it, “politically agile”, and in terms of being a politician he’s shown himself to have some fairly impressive skills, especially in terms of being a conniving, two-faced snake-oil salesman – an important ability to have as a politician.  In advance of the 2008 election he was already shifting towards the center to distance himself from President George W. Bush after having been Bush’s right-hand man in the Senate for the previous four years.  And the effort was apparently working, as many Minnesotans didn’t necessarily see Coleman as a hard-right Bush acolyte (even though he was), but as more of a “moderate, bipartisan Senator” – a bunch of hooey, as Coleman is and always has been a political animal who’ll go wherever he needs to go to keep or get a job.  And, having said that, I for one think that Coleman was a formidable incumbent to knock off, no matter who his Democratic opponent was. (Senator Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) was another agile moderate (though his centrist leanings were probably more genuine than Coleman’s) who was a difficult one to defeat, losing to Democrat Jeff Merkley by 2 percent in a state that gave some 57 percent of the vote to Barack Obama).


Having said all that, it’s remarkable how pathetic a career Coleman has had, even as he’s used his political cunning to build and sustain it.  He served as Mayor of St. Paul for two terms, his remarkable political skills being put to use when he was able to win reelection in the heavily Democratic city after switching parties to become a Republican.  He then lost a gubernatorial race in 1998 to a rather uncouth professional wrestler, before running in 2002 for the U.S. Senate against liberal icon (and my political hero) Senator Paul Wellstone.  Wellstone looked like he was on his way to a narrow victory over Coleman before dying in a plane crash less than two weeks before Election Day.  His replacement, former Vice President Walter Mondale, also looked like he was going to triumph over Coleman before Wellstone’s memorial ceremony was used as an election controversy, arguably leading to Coleman’s narrow victory over Mondale.  And now it appears he has lost (narrowly) to a professional comedian, which presumably would be the end of Coleman’s political career.


One other thing.  Coleman has defended his new job with the Republican Jewish Coalition as a way to pay the bills, since he’s not in the “millionaire’s club in the Senate”.  What he’s left unsaid is that he needs money and lots of it, not only to pay for his election contest but also to prepare for his defense against possible corruption charges.  Life is not fun for Norm Coleman right now.

JULY 7 2009 UPDATE: Well, the Minnesota Senate race is over and Al Franken is now officially the junior United States Senator from the great state of Minnesota.  Norm Coleman has for the second time lost an election to an untraditional politician widely considered to be a joke, and hopefully his political career will be over now (though I wouldn’t be surprised if he staged a rematch against Franken in 2014).


Senator Franken should be a potent force for liberalism in the Senate, following in the footsteps of his friend and our shared political hero, the great Paul Wellstone – whose seat Franken now holds and who Franken has already shown signs of wanting to emulate.  The significance of his presence is not the much over-hyped 60th Democratic vote – we don’t need 60 Democratic votes, we need 60 liberal votes.  And though we don’t have that (yet), we can definitely count on Al Franken to be one of them – his solid liberal credentials, much like Wellstone’s, were one of the main reasons why I so strongly supported his Senate bid.  And perhaps even more important is the liberal voice that he will bring to the Senate – a voice that can help inspire and push forward the liberal movement in this country and ensure that politics, as Wellstone and now Franken puts it, improves people’s lives.


Congratulations, Senator Franken!


Oh, and haha, sucks to be you Bill!

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