Report: Confusion led to burned ballots

From staff and news service reports

An Austin election judge burned 17 ballots in her fireplace at home after apparently misunderstanding some comments made by the city clerk, according to a recount report in a state Senate race.

The report by Bert Black, a legal analyst in the Secretary of State's office, said the election judge took the ballots home in a bag and burned them with other papers. Election officials said last month while conducting the recount that the ballots were missing and probably had been inadvertently destroyed.

On Nov. 5, Democrat Dan Sparks beat incumbent Republican Sen. Grace Schwab by 33 votes in the race for Senate District 27, which includes the Austin and Albert Lea areas. The narrow margin prompted an automatic recount, where officials discovered the number of ballots on hand was 17 fewer than were counted election night.

After the recount, Sparks is leading by three votes, with 32 contested ballots still to be examined by the State Canvassing Board on Tuesday. Sparks has said the destroyed ballots probably favored him because they were likely cast for Wellstone.


The ballots likely were absentee ballots with votes for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, but there is no way to verify that, according to the report. There is also no way to immediately determine who those voters chose in the Senate District 27 race.

The election judge, whose full name wasn't released, destroyed the ballots after Austin City Clerk Lucy Johnson made some general remarks, reported by witnesses in slightly different ways, suggesting that the judges should disregard the ballots when counting the U.S. Senate race, according to the report, which was released Thursday.

"It was a statement I made that was somehow construed to get rid of them," Johnson said, adding that taking ballots home goes against election judge training. "You save everything -- I mean everything."

Johnson said it was probably a lapse in judgment attributable to fatigue and stress from the long day. Johnson said the person had served as an election judge before but probably won't be invited to serve as one again.

"It was a very unfortunate situation, an embarrassing situation for us," she said.

The attorney general's office has said the election judge won't face criminal charges.

Schwab's attorney, Fritz Knaack, said he is confident that most of the 32 contested ballots will favor his client and could tilt the race to Schwab.

"Grace has a very good chance of coming out ahead," Knaack said.


The canvassing board could certify the results on Tuesday or call a special election for the seat, according to the secretary of state's office.

Sparks' attorney, Brian Rice, has said nothing in law provides for a special election in such a case and that the canvassing board must certify the results on Tuesday. The attorney general's office said no decision had been made on the issue.

A version of this story appeared in some editions Friday.

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