Boone County's vote counting system is a model for other governments

Tuesday, March 3, 2009 | 10:00 a.m. CST

The more I learn of the debacle that passes for the process of electing a senator to represent Minnesota, I realize how fortunate we are to reside in Boone County. The benefit accruing from having a grown-up in charge and adult supervision at the polls cannot be overstated.

The sheer volume of charges and counter charges flowing from both Al Franken, the Democratic Party candidate, and Norm Coleman, the Republican incumbent, increases the difficulty in determining a fair and final outcome of such a closely contested race. Nonetheless, it should be obvious to anyone with more than cursory experience with elections and vote counting that things are a bit amiss in the North Star State.

There is an old saw, generally attributed to Joseph Stalin, “It’s not the people who vote that counts. It’s the people who count the votes.” This is not an accusation of nefarious nor underhanded procedure in Minnesota; however, there appears to be ample evidence of procedural inconsistency in the failure to segregate and account for voted ballots in several precincts and absence of clear policy for absentee votes–all indications of unsatisfactory supervisory practices.

The improprieties alleged but not verified in the handling of ballots include the finding of some 100 Franken marked ballots in an election judge’s car as the most egregious example.

As an example, Minnesota, as does Missouri, requires election officials to make duplicates of ballots of originals found damaged during election counting, marking them as duplicates, separating out the originals. In this election, it came to light that some judges failed to identify the duplicates, resulting in the originals being counted as well. In all, over 25 precincts were found to have more ballots cast than signed-in voters with no possible method of determining which were double counted.

In other inconsistencies, one county’s hand count revealed 133 fewer votes than recorded by the machine on election night — the recount canvassing board chose to go with the larger number, ignoring the fact that there were not ballots on which to base this determination. But Ramsey County wins the cigar — one of its precincts ended up with 177 more ballots than recorded — the board went with the higher number even though the final count showed more votes cast than voters signing the register.

However, the counting and verifying of the absentee vote is the area where it gets “curiouser and curiouser” in the words of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In response to a complaint by Mr. Franken, alleging that some absentee votes were rejected without cause, the counties were to compile a list of those believed erroneously rejected. Here is where the election commission and reality parted company.

It has been my experience in Boone County elections, a proven yardstick for measuring accuracy, that absentee ballots are treated little differently from those regularly cast. Once the election authority determines the voter is eligible, that the ballot is in order and is received on time, it is processed by machine or by hand as appropriate. In the event the ballot is incorrectly marked, the voter’s intent (except for over voting) is determined by agreement between a Democratic and Republican judge and verified by the election authority.

Accordingly, since these ballots have already been adjudicated and recorded by competent authority, retabulating already counted votes is an unnecessary exercise. Moreover, without a standard process in place, this ploy introduces subjective judgments and applies political pressure in deciding an election other than at the polls.

Due to the inconsistencies and lack of standards in the recount, we may never know who is the legitimate elected junior Senator from Minnesota. But, having worked Boone County elections in almost all facets of the voting, counting and verifying of ballots for 15 years, I am appalled at the lack of professionalism apparent in the Minnesota Senate contest.

I doubt any election authority can equal Boone County's comprehensive, hands-on training program for election officials, put together by Wendy Noren to do the job and get it done right the first time.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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Christopher Foote March 3, 2009 | 11:27 a.m.

It's interesting that this article wasn't written in 2000 with Florida as the example of poor counting standards. Moreover, the examples of malfeasance were much greater in that election than in the Minnesota one. It is a curious coincidence that the errors benefited a Republican in 2000, as opposed to the Minnesota race, in which the Republican has come up short. Furthermore, there is solid statistical evidence that regardless of counting standard Florida awarded its 25 electoral votes to the wrong man. I realize science and the scientific method has fallen out of favor with Republicans so perhaps you won't agree with that last conclusion.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin March 3, 2009 | 12:49 p.m.

"It has been my experience in Boone County elections, a proven yardstick for measuring accuracy, that absentee ballots are treated little differently from those regularly cast."

That's actually not true -- not at all. When you vote absentee, you lose your right to a secret vote.

You read that right -- you lose your secret vote.

Unlike anywhere else I've lived, Boone county's clerks make you sign and notarize, with your drivers license, etc., an envelope into which goes your official ballot.

"We promise not to look at them," one clerk told me. "We never do!"

Famous last words have a way of eroding our basic liberties. As a result of this destruction of the basic right to a secret vote, I will never again vote absentee in Boone County.

(Report Comment)
R. Whitfield Smith March 5, 2009 | 8:50 a.m.

Christpher Foote has missed entirely the point of Karl Miller's commentary comparing vote counting procedures in Boone County with those in Minnesota.

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote March 5, 2009 | 10:39 a.m.

Mr. Smith,

Let me first state, that I think Wendy Noren and her staff do an exemplary job. In my 10 years of voting in Boone County I have never had an issue with voting. What I was commenting upon, is that the Republican Party has a campaign underway to paint Mr. Franken's victory as illegitimate. Mr. Miller has over the past few years made a number of disparaging remarks about people who felt that Bush's 2000 victory was illegitimate. I find his hypocrisy irksome. Mr. Franken was certified the winner. Under Minnesota Law, before Mr. Franken can be seated, Mr. Coleman is allowed to redress any grievances in vote counting via the courts. To date the arguments Mr. Coleman has made have not swayed the courts. His latest claim, is that there is no way to know for sure who has won, and therefore there should be a re-vote. This is not in accordance with Minnesota law. Mr. Miller's article was a subtle attack on the legitimacy of Mr. Franken's victory. You will note that it does not include any evidence that would add to Mr. Coleman's vote total, or subtract from Mr. Franken's. Rather it contains innuendo of vote totals not adding up properly. While certainly not ideal it does not indicate that the wrong candidate was certified the winner. If it did, Mr. Coleman would have a legitimate argument to put forth before the courts. The courts have ruled otherwise. I will await the forthcoming articles on liberal judicial activism.

(Report Comment)
Norma McCraw March 5, 2009 | 11:19 a.m.

Re:Christopher Foote, You know, I am getting just a little tired of the same old saw about Florida voters not being able to cast a ballot, or of George Bush stealing the election here in Florida. Let me set the record straight!
With all the hoopla over poor little Democrats not being able to mark their piece of the story always seems to go by the wayside. Thirty-two, count them (32) LIBERAL newspapers sent representatives to Florida to prove that the ballots were not counted correctly. They announced in advance of their coming that they would prove that George Bush stole the election. There were huge, front page reports of their coming in all the national newspapers, as they were going to prove that Al Gore was robbed.
We all found it strange here in Florida, that we didn't see the same front page articles to the national papers after they counted the votes again and again and again. The reason we never saw the outcome of those liberal counters, is because they had to admit:.....NO MATTER HOW MANY TIMES THEY RECOUNTED THE VOTES....GEORGE BUSH WAS STILL THE WINNER. They also had to admit that only the Democrat voters had trouble marking their ballots.
Isn't it funny how we never hear that side of the story? Hmmmmmmmm? I wonder why?

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote March 5, 2009 | 1:06 p.m.

Mrs. McCraw,
The answer to your question is that it is not true. Here are the results with respect to the newspaper consortium study: a review of all the ballots cast statewide, Al Gore would have received the most votes under any of the four counting methods ( It is rather funny that you didn't hear of these results. You ask why that is, perhaps it's because the media is not liberal? Additionally, you could be more interested in propaganda than facts, it's hard for me to say, as my sole knowledge of you is your previous erroneous screed.

(Report Comment)

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