Despite setback, Franken has reason for optimism

His attempt to stop certification of the results in his race against Sen. Norm Coleman failed, but a study suggests Al Franken will pick up votes in the recount.

By Gabriel Winant

Published November 18, 2008 9:35PM (EST)

Minnesota’s Canvassing Board is meeting Tuesday to certify the results of the state's still-undecided Senate race, in which incumbent Republican Norm Coleman leads challenger Al Franken by 215 votes.

Franken made a late attempt to stop the certification because of absentee ballots he says were improperly rejected, and the attorney general rejected his bid. Certification is a formality, a necessary step before the next part of this saga, a recount, can begin. That's expected to happen as soon as Wednesday morning.

There are good reasons for the Franken camp to want to stall certification and try to prevent Coleman being named even temporarily as the winner. Eric Kleefeld at TPM Election Central points out that the Franken campaign seems worried about entering the recount with Coleman in the lead. “That's because the aura of even a questionable Coleman win can color judgements [sic] made about individual ballots during the recount -- and could even have an effect on litigation if the recount works out in Franken's favor, and then Coleman tries to challenge the result in court,” Kleefeld writes.

Perception can be as important in a recount battle like this one as it is in a campaign. Recall the fight over Florida's Electoral College votes in 2000, when the final network call (before Al Gore retracted his concession and the networks changed to "too close to call") went to George W. Bush. This gave the Republicans footing to characterize the whole dispute as an attempt by Gore to steal the election.

Still, the certified result by itself probably won't derail Franken. Minnesota’s laws are much more forgiving of voter error in filling out ballots than Florida’s. If a recount official can tell which candidate the voter meant to choose, that candidate gets the vote, no matter how the ballot is filled out. That’s good news for Franken, because, as a study from a trio of political scientists shows, the remaining uncounted votes are likely to benefit the Democrat.

Professors Jonathan W. Chipman, Michael C. Herron and Jeffrey B. Lewis explain that most of the 34,000 ballots with unrecorded Senate votes were probably intentional abstentions. But because machines reject votes more frequently in Democratic areas, Franken will probably win the majority of so-called undervotes.

Update: The Minnesota Canvassing Board has certified the results rebuffing last minute appeals from Franken. The board agreed to proceed with the recount while considering the Franken campaign’s arguments. Likewise, a Ramsey County judge will meet soon to hear a complaint from the campaign. The recount is set to begin Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, the Coleman campaign has declared victory. “Senator Coleman has, for the third time, been named the winner of the 2008 election," said campaign manager Cullen Sheehan. “We look forward to the beginning of tomorrow's recount, and to what we believe to be the ultimate conclusion of the final chapter of this year's election -- the reelection of Senator Norm Coleman.”

Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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