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Counties to Coleman: What Part of ‘No’ Didn’t You Understand?

Thus far, the third time hasn’t really been the charm for Norm Coleman:

The campaign rests much of its case on 654 absentee ballots that local officials rejected for not complying with state law. Coleman wants the three-judge panel that will hear his lawsuit to include those ballots, most of which come from rural and suburban areas favorable to Republicans.

Although those ballots weren’t reviewed by the state Canvassing Board during the recount, some local election officials sifted through them as recently as last week after the suit was filed to see whether some should be counted.

Inquiries to a sampling of those counties and cities show local officials standing by nearly all of their earlier decisions:

• Goodhue and Anoka counties maintained that their combined share of the 654 ballots — 22 — should be excluded.

• In Minnetonka, City Clerk David Maeda said he saw no reason to include any of the 14 ballots he reviewed. “I was concerned that I missed some,” he said, explaining why he reviewed them after Coleman filed his suit. “I think all [of them] that I looked at were properly rejected.”

• Scott County’s election supervisor, Mary Kay Kes, said she wouldn’t include any of the 32 disputed ballots from there.

• Dakota County’s Joel Beckman, the county’s chief election official, said he quickly looked through a half-dozen of the 94 ballots Coleman included as part of its list. “Every one of them was rejected for good reason,” Beckman said.

• In Stearns County, election chief Walz said more than a dozen ballots Coleman wants reconsidered “were technically deficient without much debate.”

• The only county sampled that reported changing its mind was Mower, which decided that signatures for one rejected ballot matched after earlier ruling otherwise. But Auditor-Treasurer Doug Groh defended the rejection of the other ballots.

To review, these are absentee ballots that had already been deemed by the counties to be invalid — once on Election Night, and then a second time upon the court-ordered re-evaluation of absentees in December. It is not surprising that their minds haven’t been changed the third time around. Surely there are a handful of legitimate errors here and there — and by all rights, they should be identified and counted. But the notion that the counties were manifestly sloppy to the extent that they had 654 false negatives was never credible.

In addition to those cited in the clipping above, Ramsey and Pipestone counties have also re-re-evaluated their absentee ballots, and they also didn’t come up with any that they felt differently about. If we put these various anecdotal examples into a running count (making a few educated guesses about the precise tallies in certain counties), we find that Coleman’s winning percentage is somewhere in Detroit Lions territory:

Ramsey 0/50
Scott 0/32
Goodhue/Anoka 0/22
Stearns 0/15
Minnetonka 0/14
Mower 1/10
Dakota 0/6 (partial count)
Pipestone 0/2
Total 1/151 (0.66%)

So far, the counties appear to have sorted through about 150 ballots from Coleman’s list of 650, and they’ve come up with one discrepancy. At this pace, Coleman is on track to get a grand total of … 4 additional ballots counted. Given his luck, they’ll probably turn out to be Franken votes.

To be fair to Coleman, he probably doesn’t care very much about what the counties think about these ballots … his goal will be to have the Court tell someone else to take a look at them (perhaps the Court itself) in the hopes that they’ll have a different opinion.

But his batting average simply isn’t going to be very high. It sounds like the vast majority of Coleman’s complaints concern cases where the signature on the ballot doesn’t match the signature on the voter file. This requires some sort of a judgment call, I suppose, but it is nevertheless a perfectly valid reason for rejecting a ballot.

What I suspect Coleman did to come up with his list of 650 is something like this:

– Create a database of all ballots that were rejected for a non-matching signature … maybe there were 1500 of these or something statewide.

– Run some algorithm to determine the likelihood of each of these 1500 ballots being a vote for Coleman as based on things like the precinct the ballot was cast in, any information Coleman has about the voter in his voter file, and perhaps even the voter’s name (you can tell more than you’d think about someone based on their first and last name).

– All ballots determined by this algorithm to have a >50% likelihood of being Coleman votes were included on his list … there turned out to be about 650 of these.

To be sure, in undergoing this process, Coleman came across a few ballots that almost certainly were rejected in error; these became the examples that he highlighted to the courts and to the media. But it’s a bit like that old shtick you’ll see in third-rate gangster movies, where the Million Dollar Briefcase turns out to have a few $100s conspicuously placed at the top of the pile concealing a mass of $1s. Coleman has a tip, but no iceberg.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.