County workers get training for recount
By Brian Bakst
and Patrick Condon
ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Senate scoreboard will start at zero.
One by one, election workers at dozens of sites will sort through 2,920,180 ballots while building piles for Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken. A separate stack of disputed ballots will fall to a state board for a final ruling.
By the end of the tedious recount process — set to begin Wednesday and extend well into December — the campaigns and the public will at least know who got the most votes, even if litigation causes the battle to drag on.
Coleman holds a narrow lead, just 206 votes, over Franken.
Minnesota’s race looms large in the broader Washington power struggle. Depending on undecided contests in Alaska and Georgia, the Minnesota outcome could determine if Democrats attain a 60-seat majority that would enable them to overcome Republican filibusters.
The high stakes are creating high anxiety.
"We’re just as scared as the campaigns are," said Patty O’Connor, elections director in Blue Earth County. "We want to make sure everything is how it’s supposed to be. The stress levels are a little high."
On Thursday, the secretary of state’s office held a 90-minute online training session for the county workers who will execute the first stage of the recount. They asked about everything from how close campaign lawyers could stand to the ballot counters to how they should protect ballots during lunch breaks. (They were told they’ll be nice and cozy, and to have someone guard the ballots at all times.)
The recount will play out in city halls, courthouses and, in one case, a civic center that is usually home to concerts and sporting events.
County election officials are building ballot review teams of polling place judges, school clerks and their own staff to man multiple recount tables at most places.
Both campaigns are planning blanket coverage, too. Coleman’s campaign said it expects to have one or two observers for each counting table plus at least one lawyer for all 120 anticipated recount sites. Franken’s side said it has recruited 1,000 volunteers and 250 lawyers.
Add onlookers from the media and general public and the recount rooms should fill up.
"I’m assuming it’s going to be a pretty big spectacle," said Clay County Auditor Lori Johnson, whose counters have nearly 32,000 ballots to get through.
Pam Fuller, Olmsted County’s election chief, reserved the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester so she can have several teams going over 85,000 ballots. The ballots will be brought from their current location via secured law enforcement van.
Fuller hopes to finish in a day. Others are preparing for a couple weeks of work, including potential weekend shifts. The state set a Dec. 5 goal for completing the local counts.
During the training session, state elections director Gary Poser drilled down to the most minor details in hopes of ensuring a smooth process. He suggested counties post sign-in sheets, provide nametags at the counting sites and arrange adequate parking. He told them to make sure that the candidates’ representatives had credentials from their respective campaigns.
Poser’s office has also distributed a recount manual that gives step-by-step instructions and even delves into decorum.
"Always appear in control of yourself and the situation (despite a little natural nervousness)," one part reads.
In bold letters, the manual stresses that "no one else touches the ballots" besides the recount officials.