News & Politics

Hard Lesson for Franken: Not All Votes Get Counted

But the Minnesota Democrat's latest hurdle to a U.S. Senate seat might affect the GOP's senate candidate in Georgia's upcoming runoff election.

On Wednesday in Minnesota, Democratic Senate candidate Al Franken learned a hard lesson about American elections that might resonate in 2008's other unresolved Senate race: just because people vote does not mean their vote counts or gets counted.

The Minnesota Senate race is the closest in the country. The incumbent, Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican, is leading by 243 votes out of more than 2.4 million cast. That small margin triggered a statewide recount, which is underway. Both sides are now fighting over whether to count 'botched' ballots.

These ballots in question fall into two categories: about 15,000 rejected absentee (or vote by mail) ballots; and 3,700 ballots that have been "challenged" or contested by either of the campaigns because of sloppy ink marks or other issues clouding the voter's intent. Each side is essentially fishing for votes to tilt the outcome its way.

On Wednesday, Minnesota's State Canvassing Board, rejected an argument by Franken's campaign that the rejected absentee ballots be included in the recount. The Board said the issue belongs in another forum, which pundits quickly said was a major setback for Franken.

The Franken campaign said it would not appeal the board's decision. That means that the 3,700 challenged ballots will now play a prominent role in deciding if Franken will become the Senate's 59th Democratic member. The Canvassing Board also told both campaigns to stop frivolously challenging ballots. Local election boards will now review those ballots.

Curiously, the situation that has put Franken at a disadvantage may be emerging in the nation's other unresolved U.S. Senate race, in Georgia, and surfacing in such a way that could put the Republican in that race at a disadvantage in an upcoming Dec. 2 runoff.

In Georgia, Republican incumbent Sen. Saxby Chambliss faces Democratic challenger Jim Martin in a runoff because even though Chambliss received 110,000 more votes than Martin on November 4th, he did not get 50 percent of the total to win. If both Franken and Martin were to win, Democrats would have a filibuster-proof Senate majority.

Two potential snafus have emerged in Georgia affecting absentee ballots in the runoff. The Atlanta Journal Constutution has reported that a GOP effort to get voters to request absentee ballots has resulted in nearly 3,000 applications being rejected in just one large county because people did not sign their names correctly. Other counties had the same problem.

What may be far more significant are the state's 173,000 eligible overseas voters -- members of the military and citizens abroad. Those voters must return their absentee ballots by mail: post-marked by Election Day and received no later than Dec. 5 to count. The state is working with the military and U.S. Post Office to offer express delivery, a secretary of state spokesman said Wednesday.

If the run off is close in Georgia, overseas absentee ballots will become a big issue.

Just last month the Justice Department intervened on behalf of overseas military voters in Virginia -- joining a McCain-Palin campaign lawsuit. The DOJ sought a 10-day extension beyond what was allowed in Virginia law for accepting absentee ballots. It argued troops needed 30 to 45 days to get and return ballots.

The court has since dismissed McCain's part of the suit, but allowed the Department to stay involved until all the federal races in the state are settled, including a still-contested House race.

In Minnesota and possibly Georgia, both parties are learning that not all votes get counted.

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at and author of Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting (AlterNet Books, 2008).
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