What if the 2000 presidential election had hinged not on a diverse, messy, weird and slightly creepy hick state like Florida but on the most organized, practical and cordial one in the Union: Minnesota? What if, instead of going to court after court over hanging chads and butterfly ballots and whether a recount should happen, election officials had just calmly looked at each ballot and tried to figure out what the voter wanted?
That's exactly what's going on in Minnesota, where 2.9 million voters left Senator Norm Coleman just 215 votes ahead of Saturday Night Live star Al Franken. Since then, both sides have politely allowed a legally required hand recount to take place, one with very clearly specified rules and no scheduled end date. But the recount ended on Dec. 5, just as Minnesota's secretary of state said it would, and the result didn't differ much from the initial count. "We didn't have to do a lot of overtime," says Cindy Reichert, the elections director of Minneapolis. "We did do some evenings. But we're very organized." (See TIME's top 10 news stories of 2008)
But the matter has still not been resolved. Ever since the recount was completed, the two campaigns have been fighting over crucial handful of ballots that are being challenged for one reason or another. On Friday, Franken won a round in court when a state elections board ruled that more than 600 rejected absentee ballots could be sorted and counted, and that 133 missing ballots from Minneapolis could be counted by examining the tapes from a ballot counting machine. Coleman promptly said he would challenge the ruling in court.
If it had been Minnesota instead of Florida in 2000, this is what we would have found out: Voters are idiots. You make a clear, statewide ballot with neat little ovals to fill in? Some voters will put in check marks and X's. They'll fill out two ovals. They'll mark one candidate's oval in ink, try to erase that mark and then put their initials next to their correction, even though there's a law on the books forbidding voters to sign their ballots, to prevent voter bribing. They'll scrawl something about taxes in that oval, or about lizard people. You spend enough time trying to figure out the intentions of some voters, and you'll learn their real intention is to be put into special care.
This is what democracy comes to. It's sloppy and human. Just like asking a kid to count two dozen cupcakes. If you ask human beings to count 2.9 million ballots even if those human beings are Minnesotans you're going to get a slightly different number every time. Envelopes whose contents were counted the first night are lost. Absentee ballots that were never counted turn up. Some people get their votes invalidated by accident. The 133 missing ballots, from example, were in an envelope from the not-exactly-shenanigans-prone University Lutheran Church of Hope in Minneapolis that got counted late on election night, then transported to a warehouse, and seem to have gone missing in the recount. Everyone spent a day combing the place for the envelope as if they were on a CSI episode, but to no avail. "You'd love to find it," says Mark Ritchie, Minnesota's secretary of state. "Out of 3 million ballots, to have one envelope missing, you know, darn it." You know, darn it is the Minnesota equivalent of self-flagellation.
The other major disagreement is over whether to count absentee ballots that were mistakenly rejected by local election officials around the state. When the Franken camp asked for and got a list of why each ballot was rejected, it discovered some ballots were thrown away for something besides the four legally specified reasons. So most of the reasonable election officials of the Minnesota counties started sorting the rejected ballots into five neat little piles, in case the state canvassing board decided (as it did Friday) that the ballots should count. One of those fifth-pile votes, the Franken camp discovered, belonged to Erick Garcia Luna, the chairman of the state Democratic Latino caucus, who voted absentee because he was volunteering the day of the election. Like many people from Latin America, Garcia Luna has two last names, and Minnesotans aren't used to Latin Americans. So it seems logical that some election official looked up his last name under Luna instead of Garcia and determined he wasn't registered, even though he was. Garcia Luna, who just became a citizen this year, is hopeful that his vote will be counted by the canvassing board. "If you look at the mathematics, I'm like 5% of what Franken needs to win. I feel very upset. Also very important." But Garcia Luna isn't sore at the Coleman campaign for not wanting his vote counted. Though he only recently became a Minnesotan, he already sounds as if he were born here. "It's just politics," he says. "We divide partisanship from civics."
The Franken side is pushing for more ballots to be included in the recount, partly because it has nothing to lose (it's behind) and partly because, historically, Democrats screw up their ballots more often than Republicans. They're the shaky-handed elderly, the movement-limited disabled, the instruction-confused immigrants, the first-time-voting minorities. But despite this tension, the two law teams have been pleasant toward each other. Franken lead attorney Marc Elias, who was head counsel for the John Kerry campaign, says, "It's been cordial. I've met Coleman's lawyer, Mr. Knaak, three times. He seems like a nice fellow." In fact, each side independently has taken back hundreds of ballot challenges it made during the review process that were frivolous.
On Dec. 16, the state canvassing board will review each of the remaining several thousand confusing ballots with an overhead projector for the public, decide which count and declare a winner before Christmas, well before the U.S. Senate is seated on Jan. 6. The five-member board was chosen by Democratic secretary of state Ritchie, but both sides are satisfied with his appointments. To prepare himself, Ritchie not only watched HBO's movie about the Florida recount, but he watched it in a particularly Minnesotan way. "I was especially interested in the bonus features of the disc," he says. Meantime, reviewing the wacky ballots available to the public as PDF files is by far the most popular activity on the Minneapolis St. Paul Star Tribune website.
All the sensible, civic-minded spirit doesn't guarantee the losing camp won't sue when it's all over. But Minnesota law, which was perfected after a gubernatorial recount in 1962, has a plan in case of a dead tie: a coin flip. The state already did one this year for a school-board seat in Farmington. Ritchie has been looking around for a good coin for the Coleman-Franken race; he says the quarter with Minnesota on the back is the way to go. "I was watching Leatherheads, the football movie, and you realize there are angles on coin-tossing as well. Who flips it? Who calls it?" By next year, rest assured, Minnesota will have the best coin-flipping law anywhere.