The ‘Absentee’ Senator
Franken wins by changing the rules.
The Minnesota Supreme Court yesterday declared Democrat Al Franken the winner of last year’s disputed Senate race, and Republican incumbent Norm Coleman’s gracious concession at least spares the state any further legal combat. The unfortunate lesson is that you don’t need to win the vote on Election Day as long as your lawyers are creative enough to have enough new or disqualified ballots counted after the fact.
Mr. Franken trailed Mr. Coleman by 725 votes after the initial count on election night, and 215 after the first canvass. The Democrat’s strategy from the start was to manipulate the recount in a way that would discover votes that could add to his total. The Franken legal team swarmed the recount, aggressively demanding that votes that had been disqualified be added to his count, while others be denied for Mr. Coleman.
But the team’s real goldmine were absentee ballots, thousands of which the Franken team claimed had been mistakenly rejected. While Mr. Coleman’s lawyers demanded a uniform standard for how counties should re-evaluate these rejected ballots, the Franken team ginned up an additional 1,350 absentees from Franken-leaning counties. By the time this treasure hunt ended, Mr. Franken was 312 votes up, and Mr. Coleman was left to file legal briefs.
What Mr. Franken understood was that courts would later be loathe to overrule decisions made by the canvassing board, however arbitrary those decisions were. He was right. The three-judge panel overseeing the Coleman legal challenge, and the Supreme Court that reviewed the panel’s findings, in essence found that Mr. Coleman hadn’t demonstrated a willful or malicious attempt on behalf of officials to deny him the election. And so they refused to reopen what had become a forbidding tangle of irregularities. Mr. Coleman didn’t lose the election. He lost the fight to stop the state canvassing board from changing the vote-counting rules after the fact.
This is now the second time Republicans have been beaten in this kind of legal street fight. In 2004, Dino Rossi was ahead in the election-night count for Washington Governor against Democrat Christine Gregoire. Ms. Gregoire’s team demanded the right to rifle through a list of provisional votes that hadn’t been counted, setting off a hunt for “new” Gregoire votes. By the third recount, she’d discovered enough to win. This was the model for the Franken team.
Mr. Franken now goes to the Senate having effectively stolen an election. If the GOP hopes to avoid repeats, it should learn from Minnesota that modern elections don’t end when voters cast their ballots. They only end after the lawyers count them.