You wouldn’t think, to look at it now, that Minnesota once had a reputation as the epicenter of the reformist, good-government impulse in America. But the statewide recount of votes in the race between incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken is wrapping up, and Minnesota seems little closer than it was a month ago to knowing just who the hell it elected to the Senate.
On Wednesday, conflicting rumors spread about 133 apparently missing ballots. At one point, the Coleman campaign denied that there was any issue; at another, a state official suggested that maybe there was only an illusion of lost ballots, created by an accidental double-counting. Now the consensus seems to be that the ballots are indeed missing. However, in the process of searching, officials found 12 other uncounted ballots.
So here’s where things stand: the recount is over, except that it’s not, because Minnesota lost 133 ballots. Also, 5,374 challenged ballots still have to be evaluated. (And that number's actually down from the previous figure of 6,657 challenged ballots, as Franken’s campaign withdrew 633 challenges and Coleman’s, not to be outdone, withdrew 650.) Pending that evaluation, Coleman officially leads by 192 votes. Except maybe he doesn’t, because according to the Secretary of State's office the 12 new votes haven't been counted yet. Plus, Franken's camp has a tally of its own, and by that estimate, it's the Democrat who's in the lead, with a margin of just four votes. The difference between Coleman by 192 and Franken by 4, if you're confused, is that Coleman is currently counting no challenged ballots, and Franken is assuming all challenges are invalid.
Ideally, the missing 133 votes will resurface, be counted, and the process will proceed apace, hopefully resulting in the actual election of a senator by mid-2013. Failing that, however, Minnesota is going to be in for a little bit of extra unpleasantness. The state could simply pretend the stray ballots never existed, costing Franken a net 46 votes. Or, as a state official told Eric Kleefeld at Talking Points Memo, officials could just certify the precinct in question's pre-recount numbers from Election Night, giving those 46 votes back to the Democrat. There’s apparently precedent for such a move, but no matter what the state does, a lawsuit will probably result.
It’s probably fair to assume that most elections have this degree of error, though because most elections aren’t this close, we usually don't find out about it. Still, Minnesotans, you were supposed to be the squeaky-clean competent ones; if anyone could handle this, it should’ve been you. I'm giving Wisconsin your title, and I’m betting this thing eventually ends in a do-over. It's happened before.