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Missing Ballots in Minneapolis?

The latest drama in the Minnesota recount is taking place in the 1st Precinct of the 3rd Ward of the city of Minneapolis, where officials identified 133 fewer ballots in their re-count today than had been recorded on election day. As this particular precinct voted heavily for Franken, who nearly doubled Norm Coleman’s vote total there on November 4, a reduction in the ballot count there would be a significant detriment to him, which the St. Paul Pioneer Press estimates as a net loss of 36 ballots.

City elections officials initially claimed that no ballots were in fact missing — rather, they believed that some ballots were double-counted on election day. From the Pioneer Press article:

Elections officials in Minnesota’s largest city today discovered that one precinct came up 133 ballots short of election day totals, resulting in a net loss for Democratic challenger Al Franken of 36 votes.

The development wipes away what had been a boon for Franken in his bid to overtake Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, after Ramsey County officials found an additional 37 votes for Franken from a Maplewood precinct on Tuesday.

Minneapolis elections director Cindy Reichert said she believes the error occurred when election judges at the precinct on election night mistakenly ran ballots with write-in candidates through a counting machine twice. There were 129 such ballots.

Reichert said although the numbers do not match exactly, she is confident that that’s what happened and will report those numbers to the Secretary of State’s Office

You may already notice one small discrepancy here. The recount identified 133 fewer ballots than had been processed on election day. Reichert thinks that the culprit is ballots with write-in candidates, of which there were 129. The number 133 is close to the number 129, but it isn’t 129 exactly.

However, there is another way to test Reichert’s hypothesis. Reichert appears to be claiming that any ballots with any write-in votes for any office were segregated, and that such ballots were mistakenly counted twice on Election Day. If this were the case, then it would have one distinct fingerprint. In particular, the number of write-in ballots for each office on the ballot would be an even number. (The algebra, in case this isn’t intuitive: Let’s say that of the 129 ballots that contain write-ins for any office, x of them contain write-ins for County Commissioner, where x is a positive integer. If you’ve double-counted those ballots, you’ll wind up with 2x write-ins for that office. Since any positive integer multiplied by 2 results in an even number, the number of write-in ballots you record for that office must be even).

For quite a number of offices in this particular precinct, however, the number of write-in ballots recorded on Election Day was an odd number. For instance:

Office                                       Write-Ins
Soil & Water Supervisor, District 1 39
Associate Justice - Supreme Court 4 11
Judge - Court of Appeals 9 9
Judge - Court of Appeals 15 5
Judge - 4th District Court 1 5
Judge - 4th District Court 4 5
Judge - 4th District Court 9 7
Judge - 4th District Court 10 3
Judge - 4th District Court 19 3
Judge - 4th District Court 30 1
Judge - 4th District Court 36 3
Judge - 4th District Court 42 1
Judge - 4th District Court 46 3
Judge - 4th District Court 56 3
Judge - 4th District Court 58 7
Judge - 4th District Court 60 3
Judge - 4th District Court 61 3
Judge - 4th District Court 62 7

Note also that for a couple of offices, there was exactly one write-in vote recorded. If you’ve in fact counted all ballots containing write-ins twice, how can you end up with exactly one write-in for a particular office?

It would also stand to reason that if ballots containing write-ins were counted twice, there would be an unusually high number of write-ins in Precinct 1. However, this doesn’t happen to be true. In Precinct 1, 10 of the 2026 votes tabulated for President were write-ins, or 0.49%. In the other eight precincts in Ward 3, a total of 58 of the 12,023 ballots tabulated for President were write-ins, or 0.48%. Or, we can look at an office with a higher rate of write-ins, such as “Soil & Water Supervisor, District 1”. In Ward 1, 39 of the 1050 ballots cast for this office were write-ins, or 3.71%. In the other eight precincts, 200 of 6,360 ballots cast for this office were write-ins, or 3.14%. The number of write-in ballots in Precinct 1 appears to be very normal, not the high numbers we’d expect such ballots were counted twice.

To her credit, Reichert now appears to be backing off the double-counting theory. And it looks, frankly, like the ballots have in fact been misplaced. The Uptake got a chance to look at registration tables for Precinct 1, and found the following:

1,047 voters signed in on the roster.
932 additional voters registered in person on Election Day.
35 absentee ballots were accepted in this precinct by the city.
15 absentee ballots were accepted in this precinct by the county.
TOTAL: 2,029 voters cast legal ballots (2,028 votes are recorded on the machine tape).
TODAY: 1,896 ballots were included in the recount.

That is, a total of 2,029 voters either signed in on the registered voter roster in this precinct, registered in person on Election Day (Minnesota is one of the few states that allows you to do this), or sent in absentee ballots. This closely matches the 2,028 votes recorded in the precinct’s November 4 count, but does not so closely match the 1,896 ballots that were identified in the recount today.

It looks more likely than not that 133 ballots have in fact gone missing; I have no idea what happens if they cannot be found.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.