St. Paul Pioneer Press
Dec. 21, 2008
by Mark Halvorson

As nonpartisan election integrity advocates with front-row seats at the U.S. Senate recount, we believe Minnesotans can be confident the process has been methodical and fair. The intense scrutiny given to each step of the process and to each vote in the Senate recount has provided an incredible civics lesson for Minnesotans and the nation. Hundreds of Minnesotans have volunteered as nonpartisan observers in at least one of four statewide manual counts — the 2006 and 2008 post-election audits, the 2008 judicial primary recount and, now, the U.S. Senate recount. These efforts were organized by Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota in partnership with the League of Women Voters Minnesota and Common Cause Minnesota. Our volunteers who were trained to be impartial observers signed a code of conduct and completed observation surveys. According to one observer, "After my first day I felt proud that our process was so transparent in Minnesota and confident that our election could not be stolen by one party or another because we had such a good recount process." Here's what we've learned: Our current election laws effectively prevented the chaos that could have clouded the process. Minnesota's election process is characterized by transparency and openness. The most recent example is the live online streaming of the canvassing board's review of the challenged ballots. In addition, thousands of citizens were involved in the recount as election judges, partisan challengers or nonpartisan observers, and several Web sites posted thousands of challenged ballots. To enhance transparency, two of us from Citizens for Election Integrity witnessed the search for the missing ballots in the Minneapolis elections warehouse. Early on, one of the party representatives pulled me aside and whispered, "I want you to keep an eye on them," as he pointed to the other party representatives. I responded, "Actually, we are keeping an eye on all of you." The people, procedures and technology comprising this system are a model because they minimize problems that historically have undermined election integrity and voter confidence. Minnesota's reputation for electoral integrity begins with its choice of voting technology: voter-marked paper ballots counted by optical-scan machines. This voting technology is considered one of the most accurate. But when elections are close, all systems need an independent check to verify the results. That is why Minnesota has an automatic manual recount law that kicks in whenever the margin of victory is below 0.5 percent. A manual recount is the best way to be confident in the accuracy of the results in such a close race. A meaningful recount is possible because the paper ballots provide a physical record of each voter's intent and enable a way to independently verify the machine tally. Although some have argued that a machine recount would have been cheaper and quicker than a hand count, it would not have been as accurate in determining voter intent. Vote totals typically rise whenever there is a hand recount of a machine tally, as we've seen in this recount. This is because some voters mis-mark their ballots — for example, by circling an oval instead of filling it in — in such a way that optical scanners cannot detect their intent. While the Minnesota election process is solid overall, we can learn from this unprecedented scrutiny how to make the process better. A number of reforms have been discussed, including streamlining the absentee ballot process, early voting and improving election-judge trainings. We support the call for Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to create a commission to hold public meetings to review Minnesota's election laws and identify ways to make a good system better. A guiding principle of our organization from day one is that every vote that is properly cast must be counted. A manual recount is required not because we distrust the election system, but because we care enough about this important process to be as certain as possible of the outcome. What we learn will help improve our protocols, increase the accuracy of our elections, improve voter confidence and strengthen our democracy. Mark Halvorson is founder and director of Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota. The opinion originally appeared here: