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Why I’ve Been Ignoring the Minnesota Recount

Simply put, while there’s been plenty of news coming out of Minnesota — see Eric Kleefeld at TPM for the gory details — little of it has been of much consequence. Norm Coleman has every right to seek relief through the courts. But it’s been quite clear for some time that Al Franken was overwhelmingly likely to be declared the winner in Minnesota. I have little interest in covering legal minutia when there’s so much else going on in Washington and around the world.

Why has it been so clear that Franken is bound for victory? Throughout the process, there have been two types of ballots that are in some measure of dispute:

1) In-person ballots, which had one or more imperfections that led them to being not counted (or miscounted) on Election Day.
2) Absentee ballots, which had one more alleged imperfections, and which may or may not have been rejected in error.

The plurality of each of these types of ballots are likely to have been cast for Al Franken. How come? In the first case, spoiled or imperfect ballots are more likely to have been cast by what I call vulnerable voters: people such as students, lower-income voters, and minority voters who tend to vote less frequently and are therefore more likely to have made a mistake in completing their ballots. These same demographics, however, are also generally more likely to be Democratic voters, and that was especially so this year given Barack Obama’s appeal to some of these constituencies.

The second group of ballots — the absentee ballots — were also more likely to favor Democrats. This is because, in contrast to years prior when absentee ballots tended to be more Republican, the Democrats made a nationwide push this year for early and absentee voting, particularly in (purported) swing states like Minnesota. Pre-election polls (see here and here) showed Al Franken overperforming among absentee voters, and both the Franken and the Coleman legal teams were operating under the assumption that a plurality of such ballots would in fact be cast for Franken. If more wrongly-rejected absentee ballots have been turning up in blue precincts, that is simply because more absentee ballots period were cast in blue precincts, and the wrongly-rejected absentees constitute some more-or-less random subset of those. (If anything, in fact, the disputed absentee ballots are probably more likely than the nondisputed absentee ballots to have been cast for Franken, because they may be subject to the same “vulnerable voter” principle described above).

Norm Coleman had a perfectly good chance of winning the election so long as he was arguing that as few of these ballots as possible should have been counted. Once he fell behind after the recount, however, and then fell further behind once some previously-rejected absentee ballots were counted, Coleman began arguing for the inclusion of more, rather than fewer, ballots. This was the correct strategy, in the same way that fouling with 20 seconds to go when down by 7 points late in a basketball game is the correct strategy: if you don’t stop the clock, your chances of winning are precisely zero. If you do stop the clock, however, your chances of winning under these circumstances are nevertheless almost zero, and on average you’ll fall further behind.

It was predictable, therefore, that when Coleman finally succeeded in getting Minnesota to count some additional absentee ballots yesterday, they turned out to increase Franken’s lead.

Minneapolis-based attorney Scott Johnson has some parallel thoughts at the National Review, although he places somewhat more blame at the hands of Coleman’s legal team, which he calls complacent and inept. I’m not really sure that there is much more that Coleman’s team could have done, because I’m not sure that there is ultimately any reasonably self-consistent ballot counting standard by which Coleman would have emerged victorious. Nevertheless, I think Johnson is right that the performance of Coleman’s counsel has been haphazard: they never really attempted to articulate such a standard, and as a result always seemed to be about one move behind.

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

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