Hard Math: Small Errors Plus One-Vote Margin Equals Big Problems in Alexandria


[Image courtesy of Alexandria, MN]

The small town of Alexandria, MN – which calls itself the “Birthplace of America” because of claims Viking settlers arrived there years before Columbus – is facing big problems after errors in the 2012 legislative elections left Douglas County election officials with a tough decision:

State House District 8B candidate Mary Franson won a legal decision involving her one-vote victory [10,652 to 10,651] over Bob Cunniff.

Last Tuesday, Judge David Battey granted Franson’s request to declare that “obvious errors” had occurred in the election, which will trigger a process Franson favored: Removing 35 votes at random from three precincts in Alexandria where the mistakes occurred.

Battey ordered the Douglas County Canvassing Board to inspect the ballots and returns of the affected precincts and correct the error in accordance with Minnesota statutes by discarding the ballots before a pending recount takes place.

Here’s how the matter ended up in court:

Douglas County election officials were going over the canvassing results and noticed that 26 voters in Alexandria Ward 1 were given ballots that allowed them to vote in the Franson-Cunniff race when they were supposed to be voting in the neighboring House District 12B race. Both districts voted at the same polling place.

Also, in Ward 5, precinct 2, six voters were given the wrong ballots, allowing them to vote in 8B when they should have been voting in the 12B race.

In addition, in Alexandria Ward 3 there were three more ballots cast than there were signatures on the voting roster.

Without a doubt, this is an absolute nightmare for the affected election official; the combination of the closest possible winning margin and just enough erroneous ballots has put the outcome in District 8B in doubt and will definitely result in an automatic recount and, given these issues, might also trigger a post-election contest.

To be fair, however, it’s also a nightmare for the court; even the judge in this case acknowledged the difficult decision he faced:

In his order, Battey noted the following:

“While the remedy in this situation may not be the ideal solution to the problem, the court notes that it has limited options. Although it can reasonably be argued that the discrepancy in votes resulted from errors in administration of the election or distribution of ballots, the court finds that the discrepancy ultimately resulted in counting and recording errors.”

This procedure of removing ballots at random – which will almost certainly result in the elimination of valid ballots – is a dice roll for both sides, but given the composition of the affected wards, favors Franson:

Republicans think Battey’s decision gives them an advantage to winning the tight election.

House Minority Leader-elect Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the ballots to be removed come from precincts in which Cunniff did well, which means chances are that he could lose votes.

Once the ballots are removed and the results certified, the state canvassing board will meet to review the race and order an automatic recount – basically a foregone conclusion even if all of the ballots favor one candidate or another.

This is usually the point where I make some observation about what the affected jurisdiction could have done to prevent the problem, but the simple fact is it’s not clear what could have been done other than expect absolute perfection. Minnesota’s legislative districts were drawn by a court – and split precincts like Wards 1 and 5 – and the 3-vote discrepancy with signatures in Ward 3 could have been the result of any number of factors.

The bottom line is that the District 8B race is going to a recount – and then likely to court. That’s not ideal but is probably inevitable when you’re looking at a one-vote margin.

1 Comment on "Hard Math: Small Errors Plus One-Vote Margin Equals Big Problems in Alexandria"

  1. Hi Doug

    In this article you comment that “it’s not clear what could have been done other than expect absolute perfection.” Our new pLocation would have prevented it.

    We deployed pLocation on an inexpensive tablet to each polling place for City of Detroit in the Nov 2012 general election. Since Detroit had to relocate and drastically reduce the number of polling places, the election director foresaw a multitude of misdirected voters.

    With the new pLocation, a poll worker walked down the line of voters with the tablet, used either name or registration card number or driver’s license number to look up the voter, and saw the correct split, precinct, and polling place. They’d then explain to the mis-located voters how to get to the correct polling place.

    It saved some voters from standing in line at the wrong place, and would have told the poll workers in Douglas County which ballot style to hand to the voter.

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