States can avoid Minnesota's recount mess

By Rob Richie and Emily Hellman

Minnesota is proving an old Hollywood truism: Most sequels fall flat.

Launched this week in counties around Minnesota, "Recount 2: The Governor's Race" is nothing like the state's necessary, if overly prolonged, Senate recount in 2008. This recount has no chance of overturning the outcome, but could provide an unfortunate new example of partisanship run amok.

The GOP may find it irresistible that Republican Tim Pawlenty can remain governor as long as the recount and associated litigation delay certification of the outcome. And he now can work with the new Republican majorities in the Minnesota legislature.

Pawlenty staying in office, the St. Paul Pioneer Press observed, "would give Republicans the unchecked ability to pass legislation."

Bills that the former legislative Democratic majority would have blocked during Pawlenty's tenure can now pass. And during this interval, the new GOP legislature can act without fear of a veto from Democrat Mark Dayton, the near-certain winner of the gubernatorial race.

Minnesota's potential crisis is grounded in laws that other states would do well to avoid - both to save taxpayer dollars and avoid partisan temptations.

Here's more background on why this year's recount is so different than the one after the 2008 Senate election. In one of those rare numerical flukes, harkening back to the 2000 presidential election in Florida, Republican Norm Coleman led Democrat Al Franken by just 215 votes out of nearly 2.9 million votes cast.

A statewide recount shifted the margin by just 440 votes (0.02 percent) to Franken, but that was enough to elect him to the Senate. According to our coming study on statewide recounts in the United States, Franken's victory was one of just three recounts that reversed an outcome in the 2,884 statewide general elections that took place in 2000-2009.

By contrast, to win the governor's race this year, the Republican Tom Emmer would have to overcome a 8,775 deficit (0.42 percent) to Democrat Mark Dayton. In other words, Emmer needs a shift in votes 20 times greater than the change in 2008 - and nearly four times greater than the highest margin shift in any statewide recount administered anywhere in the country in the past decade.

Despite the near-certain futility of this recount, Minnesota taxpayers are forced to foot the bill. In any federal or state election where the original margin is less than 0.5 percent, Minnesota must pay for an automatic hand count if not waived by the losing candidate. Twelve other states automatically pay for statewide recounts with margins of 0.5 percent or greater, though not all with hand tallies.

But given how few votes are affected by recounts, an 0.5 percent automatic trigger is far too high for statewide elections. Of the nation's 18 statewide recounts in 2000-2009, the largest margin shift was only 0.11 percent - and even that minimal change was primarily due to many small towns conducting more error-prone hand tallies in the race for Vermont auditor in 2006

Because most states count ballots on machines, the average shift in vote margins in statewide recounts is typically far smaller -- less than 0.03 percent.

The 0.02 percent change in Minnesota's 2008 recount was consistent with that pattern. Given that Minnesota has largely the same voting machines in place, and only a small number of hand-counted ballots, a substantially greater margin shift is highly unlikely.

Indeed, with more than 93 percent of the recount finished by Thursday night, Emmer had only reduced Dayton's margin by 36 votes.

Though Emmer justifies the recount by suggesting it may detect errors in the voting process, this review should not delay seating a new governor. Passing long-sought legislative goals might be tempting, but Republicans should be wary of what will understandably be seen as a power grab. Pawlenty's presidential ambitions would likely go up in smoke, and state political tensions might well reach a breaking point.

Instead, Minnesota and other states should adjust their laws governing automatic recounts to reflect current realities - and the 33 states without any automatic recount should establish one, as recounts uphold the value of every vote when an outcome is in doubt. But while a 0.5 percent recount trigger can make sense for state legislative races with smaller electorates, the trigger for statewide races should be smaller. 

Minnesota, in fact, nearlly adopted a bill last year to lowerr the recount trigger to a still overly generous 0.25 percent. Given what really happens in statewide recounts with modern voting machines, we would recommend Arizona's 0.1 percent trigger as a model for most states, perhaps rising to 0.2% for our smallest states.

Our ideal recount law also would allow candidates like Emmer to petition for recounts with larger margins than the automatic recount trigger -- but only if the recount does not prevent seating the likely winner and only if that candidate's campaign or party is ready to pay for the recount if the outcome is not reversed. Local taxpayers in Minnesota are paying some $200,000 for this year's recount, while Washington State's gubernatorial election recount in 2004 cost closer to a million dollars.

We should also mandate post-election manual audits to verify vote counts in all races -- for even ballots in races won by substantial vote margins should be recounted if random audits uncover errors large enough to potentially affect the outcome.

Left unchanged, Minnesota's automatic recount trigger is far too high - and has created the potential to turn recounts into yet another weapon in the unseemly partisan warfare that governs too much of our politics.

We hope Minnesota will survive this latest recount with dignity. And then join other states in establishing appropriate recount thresholds for future elections.

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote, (, a national organization unaffiliated with FairVote Minnesota. Emily Hellman is a FairVote democracy fellow and author of a forthcoming report on statewide recounts.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article suggested that Minnesota legislation to lower the automatic recount trigger to 0.25% was vetoed. This provision was removed in a conference committee.Read more: