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Context of 'November 17, 2008: Minnesota Senate Candidate Accuses Secretary of State of Displaying Partisan Behavior in Absentee Ballot Issue'

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The US Supreme Court issues a ruling in Bush v. Gore (see December 11, 2000) that essentially declares George W. Bush (R-TX) the winner of the Florida presidential election, and thusly the winner of the US presidential election (see Mid-to-Late November 2000). The decision in Bush v. Gore is so complex that the Court orders that it not be used as precedent in future decisions. The 5-4 decision is split along ideological lines, with Justices Sandra Day O’Connor (see After 7:50 p.m. November 7, 2000 and (November 29, 2000)) and Anthony Kennedy, two “moderate conservatives,” casting the deciding votes. In the per curium opinion, the Court finds: “Because it is evident that any recount seeking to meet the Dec. 12 date will be unconstitutional… we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida ordering the recount to proceed.… It is obvious that the recount cannot be conducted in compliance with the requirements of equal protection and due process without substantial additional work.” The decision says that the recounts as ordered by the Florida Supreme Court suffer from constitutional problems (see December 7-8, 2000). The opinion states that differing vote-counting standards from county to county and the lack of a single judicial officer to oversee the recount violate the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. The majority opinion effectively precludes Vice President Al Gore from attempting to seek any other recounts on the grounds that a recount could not be completed by December 12, in time to certify a conclusive slate of electors. The Court sends the case back to the Florida Supreme Court “for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.” Four justices issue stinging dissents. Justice John Paul Stevens writes: “One thing… is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” Justice Stephen G. Breyer adds that “in this highly politicized matter, the appearance of a split decision runs the risk of undermining the public’s confidence in the court itself.” [Per Curiam (Bush et al v. Gore et al), 12/12/2000; US News and World Report, 12/13/2000; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 12/17/2000; Leip, 2008]
Drafting Opinions - After oral arguments concluded the day before, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that if they were to remand the case back to Florida, that order must go out immediately in light of the approaching deadline for certification of results; Stevens quickly wrote a one-paragraph opinion remanding the case back to Florida and circulated it, though with no real hope that it would be adopted. The five conservative justices are determined to reverse the Florida decision. For the rest of the evening and well into the next day, December 12, the justices work on their opinions. Stevens prepares the main dissent, with the other three liberal justices preparing their own concurrences. Stevens and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg find no support whatsoever for the equal-protection argument, and say so in their writings. Justices Breyer and David Souter give the idea some weight; Souter says that the idea of uniform standards is a good one, but these standards should be created and imposed by the Florida judiciary or legislature. Stopping the recounts solves nothing, he writes. It soon becomes apparent that neither Kennedy nor O’Connor share Rehnquist’s ideas on the jurisdiction of the Florida court, and will not join him in that argument. Kennedy writes the bulk of the majority opinion; as predicted, his opinion focuses primarily on the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. The liberal justices and clerks find Kennedy’s reasoning that stopping the recounts is the only way to ensure equal protection entirely unconvincing. Anthony Scalia circulates a sealed memo complaining about the tone of some of the dissents, asking that the dissenters not call into question the Court’s credibility. (His memo prompts Ginsburg to remove a footnote from her dissent commenting on Florida’s disenfranchised African-American voters; some of the liberal clerks see the incident as Ginsburg being bullied into compliance by Scalia. Subsequent investigations show that thousands of legitimate African-Americans were indeed disenfranchised—see November 7, 2000.) Kennedy sends a memo accusing the dissenters of “trashing the Court,” and says that the dissenters actually agree with his equal-protection argument far more than they want to admit. When he has a line inserted into his opinion reading, “Eight Justices of the Court agree that there are constitutional problems with the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court that demand a remedy,” some of Stevens’s clerks angrily telephone Kennedy’s clerks and accuse them of misrepresenting Stevens’s position. They demand that the line be removed. Kennedy refuses, and Stevens rewrites his opinion so that he is no longer associated with the position. Kennedy is forced to rewrite the statement to say that “seven,” not “eight” justices agree with his position. One of Stevens’s clerks, Eduardo Penalver, tells Kennedy clerk Grant Dixton that what Kennedy had done was disgusting and unprofessional. Breyer and his clerks are also unhappy about Kennedy’s assertion, but take no action. The line prompts many in the media to claim, falsely, that the decision is a 7-2 split and not a 5-4. The main document, a short unsigned opinion halting the recounts, is written by Kennedy. Two portions are particularly notable: Kennedy’s assertion that the ruling applies only to Bush, and not to future decisions; and that the Court had only reluctantly accepted the case. “That infuriated us,” one liberal clerk later recalls. “It was typical Kennedy bullsh_t, aggrandizing the power of the Court while ostensibly wringing his hands about it.” Rehnquist, Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas join the decision, though Scalia is unimpressed with Kennedy’s writing and reasoning. Reportedly, he later calls it a “piece of sh_t,” though he will deny making the characterization.
Lack of Consensus - The lack of consensus between the conservative justices is relatively minor. Among the four liberal justices, though, it is quite pronounced—though all four wish not to end the recounts, only Stevens has a strong position and has stayed with it throughout the process. Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer were far less certain of their opposition, and resultingly, their dissents, unlike the impassioned Stevens dissent, are relatively pallid. Some of the liberal clerks say that the four’s lack of consensus helped the solid conservative majority stay solid: “They gave just enough cover to the five justices and their defenders in the press and academia so that it was impossible to rile up the American people about these five conservative ideologues stealing the election.”
Final Loss - Gore, reading the opinion, finally realizes that he and his campaign never had a chance with the five conservative justices, though they had hoped that either O’Connor or Kennedy would join the four liberals (see (November 29, 2000)). He congratulates his legal team, led by David Boies, and commends it for making it so difficult for the Court to justify its decision. Some reports will circulate that Souter is depressed over the decision, with Newsweek reporting that he later tells a group of Russian judges that the decision was “the most outrageous, indefensible thing” the Court had ever done. He also reportedly says that had he had “one more day,” he could have convinced Kennedy to turn. However, Souter will deny the reports, and those who know him will say that such comments would be out of character for him. For her part, O’Connor will express surprise that anyone could be angry over the decision. As for Scalia, some Court observers believe that his open partisanship during the process will cost him any chance he may have had to be named chief justice. [Vanity Fair, 10/2004]

Entity Tags: David Souter, William Rehnquist, David Boies, Anthony Kennedy, Albert Arnold (“Al”) Gore, Jr., Al Gore presidential campaign 2000, US Supreme Court, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Clarence Thomas, George W. Bush presidential campaign 2000, George W. Bush, Florida Supreme Court, John Paul Stevens, Grant Dixton, Sandra Day O’Connor, Eduardo Penalver

Timeline Tags: 2000 Elections, Civil Liberties

Two days after the US Senate election in Minnesota failed to produce a clear winner (see November 4-5, 2008), Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) demands that his challenger, Al Franken (D-MN), concede. Franken has asked that the votes be recounted, as Coleman originally led with a razor-thin 725-vote margin of victory. (A recount is automatic under the law with a margin of victory of less than 0.5 percent, as this one is.) As ballot totals have shifted with the addition of absentee and other ballots, Coleman’s margin has shrunk even further, to 438 votes. Franken says that “a recount could change the outcome significantly,” and adds: “Let me be clear: Our goal is to ensure that every vote is properly counted.” Coleman has requested that the recount not take place, and has declared himself the winner of the election. Coleman also says that a recount would cost some $86,000 to Minnesota taxpayers, a cost he describes as prohibitively high considering that he would almost certainly win the recount. Franken does not concede. [Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 11/6/2008]

Entity Tags: Norm Coleman, Al Franken

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2008 Elections

The campaign of US Senate candidate Norm Coleman (R-MN) says that “improbable shifts” in vote tallies are improperly favoring Coleman’s opponent, Al Franken (D-MN), in Minnesota’s Senate race. The accusation implies that Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie (D-MN) is exhibiting partisan bias in the Senate race recount. Franken requested a recount after Coleman was declared the winner by a margin narrow enough to legally support such a request (see November 4-5, 2008). Ritchie won the office two years ago after accusing his Republican predecessor of partisan bias. He promises that his oversight of the Senate recount will be fair, transparent, and impartial. “Minnesotans have an expectation of a nonpartisan election recount,” he has said. Coleman’s initial estimate of a 725-vote margin of victory has dwindled to some 200 votes, prompting Coleman to complain of “improbable shifts” in the vote tallies that are unfairly benefiting Franken. One of Coleman’s lawyers tells a reporter, “We’re not going to sit idly by while mysterious, statistically dubious changes in vote totals take place after official government offices close.” Ritchie responds by accusing the Coleman campaign of trying “to create a cloud” over the recount and “denigrating the election process,” and says that such shifts are normal when votes are retallied after any election, when county officials verify election night tabulations reported to his office. Ritchie says the Coleman campaign is mounting “a well-known political strategy,” adding, “If people want to accuse county elections officials of partisan activity, they better be ready to back it up.” Ritchie oversaw a recent Supreme Court election that was praised by both sides as being fairly handled. [Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 11/10/2008; TPM Muckraker, 11/11/2008] According to Ritchie’s office, small vote shifts after an election is called are normal. After an election, the office says: “[E]lection officials proof their work and make corrections, as necessary. It is routine for election officials to discover a number of small errors, including improper data entry, transposition of digits (e.g. entering the number 48 instead of 84), and other items that affect the reported outcome.” [Huffington Post, 11/21/2008]

Entity Tags: Mark Ritchie, Al Franken, Norm Coleman

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2008 Elections

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) launches attacks on Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie (D-MN) in an attempt to throw the Minnesota Senate race recount into doubt. Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) and challenger Al Franken (D-MN) ran for Coleman’s seat in the US Senate, and the results, narrowly favoring Coleman, were challenged by Franken (see November 4-5, 2008). The NRSC distributes a three-page “backgrounder” on Ritchie to reporters that implies Ritchie is letting his political background affect his conduct in administering the recount. Among Ritchie’s “suspicious” activities are his speech at the Democratic convention during the summer, and his having “led a voter registration coalition that included ACORN,” the much-vilified Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (see May 2, 2008, October 7, 2008, October 18, 2008, and October 14, 2008). The NRSC even attempts to imply that Ritchie is a Communist sympathizer in a piece entitled “Communist Party USA Wrote Encouragingly Of His Candidacy.” (On November 19, Fox News’s Andrew Napolitano will call Ritchie a “former Communist” and a “former member of the Communist Party,” but without advancing any proof of the allegations.) According to a report by TPM Muckraker’s Zachary Roth, “there’s no evidence that Ritchie has ever used his role as the state’s top elections administrator to advantage Democrats.” Roth writes that “the point of the GOP gambit… appears to be to cast public doubt on the integrity of the recount process, thereby bolstering Coleman’s claim that’s he’s the rightful winner and that a recount is unnecessary—just the strategy pursued by George Bush’s campaign in Florida in 2000.” [TPM Muckraker, 11/11/2008; Media Matters, 11/20/2008]

Entity Tags: National Republican Senatorial Committee, Al Franken, Andrew Napolitano, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Norm Coleman, Zachary Roth, Communist Party USA, Mark Ritchie

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2008 Elections

An unsigned op-ed in the Wall Street Journal accuses the Senate campaign of Al Franken (D-MN) of voter fraud. Franken and incumbent Norm Coleman (R-MN) are locked in a race that was too close to call, and are awaiting the results of a recount (see November 4-5, 2008). Since then, the Coleman campaign (see November 10, 2008) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC—see November 11, 2008) have implied a variety of wrongdoings, including underhanded ballot tally manipulation, partisan bias, and even shadowy connections to the Communist Party. Some Democrats, the Journal states, are engaged in “stealing a Senate seat for left-wing joker Al Franken.” The Journal reiterates a claim by Coleman’s lead recount lawyer Fritz Knaak that the director of the Minneapolis Board of Elections forgot to count 32 absentee ballots that she had left in her car. The Coleman campaign attempted to get a judge to stop those ballots from being added to the total, the Journal states, but the judge refused to do so. The Journal also records a number of statistically “unusual” or “improbable” vote tally shifts that have combined to shave Coleman’s initial 725-vote lead to just over 200. The Journal joins Coleman and the NRSC in attacking Secretary of State Mark Ritchie (D-MN), whose office is overseeing the upcoming recount. It cites Ritchie’s own run for office in 2006, which was supported by, among others, liberal activist group MoveOn.org, and says Ritchie is “an ally” of “the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, of fraudulent voter-registration fame” (see May 2, 2008, October 7, 2008, October 18, 2008, and October 14, 2008). Ritchie’s “relationship” with ACORN, the Journal states, “might explain why prior to the election Mr. Ritchie waved off evidence of thousands of irregularities on Minnesota voter rolls, claiming that accusations of fraud were nothing more than ‘desperateness’ from Republicans.” The Journal expands its accusations to include the Franken campaign, which it says is “mau-mauing election officials into accepting tossed ballots.” [Wall Street Journal, 11/12/2008; MinnPost, 11/12/2008] The same day as the Journal op-ed is published, Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN) repeats the allegation about the absentee ballots being left overnight in an election official’s car, telling a Fox News reporter: “As I understand it, and this is based on news accounts, he claims that even though they were in his car, that they were never outside of his security or area of control, so the courts allowed that. It seems a little loose to me.” Asked by a Fox reporter, “What were they doing in his car?” Pawlenty replies: “There has not been a good explanation for that, Kelly. That’s a very good question, but they’ve been included in the count pile which is concerning.” Pawlenty mischaracterizes the gender of the Minneapolis Elections Director, Cindy Reichert. Reichert also says the entire story is “just not true.” The story comes from Knaak, who initially told reporters, “We were actually told ballots had been riding around in her car for several days, which raised all kinds of integrity questions.” By the day’s end, Knaak backs away from the claim of impropriety. A local outlet reports, “Knaak said he feels assured that what was going on with the 32 ballots was neither wrong nor unfair.” Reichert says that Knaak’s story is entirely false. No ballots were ever left in her car, nor were they left unattended in anyone else’s car. They were secured between Election Night and when they were counted. They were briefly in an election official’s car, along with every other absentee ballot, as they were all driven from individual precincts to polling places as mandated by Minnesota election law. “What I find ludicrous is that this goes on all around the state,” Reichert says. “If we could process them [at City Hall] we’d love to do that.” The absentee ballots were transported, sorted, and counted according to standard elections procedures, Reichert says. The 32 ballots in question were not counted until November 8, and both the Coleman and Franken campaigns were informed that the ballots were not included in the initial Minneapolis tallies. The tally for those 32 ballots: Franken 18, Coleman seven, and seven for other candidates or for no one. [MinnPost, 11/12/2008]

Entity Tags: Tim Pawlenty, Fox News, Cindy Reichert, Al Franken, Fritz Knaak, Norm Coleman, Mark Ritchie, Wall Street Journal, National Republican Senatorial Committee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The campaign of US Senate candidate Norm Coleman (R-MN) says that Minnesota’s Secretary of State, Mark Ritchie (D-MN), has displayed partisan behavior on behalf of challenger Al Franken (D-MN) by announcing that his office would consider counting some absentee ballots that were not counted during the initial vote tallies. Approximately 1,000 absentee ballots were not counted in the initial tallies, and Franken’s legal team contends that most of them were wrongly rejected by election judges. The initial election results triggered a recount (see November 6, 2008); Coleman has already implied that efforts are underway to manipulate the vote in favor of Franken (see November 10, 2008), implications previously made by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (see November 11, 2008 and November 12, 2008). Coleman’s lead campaign lawyer Fritz Knaak says that the Franken campaign is engaging in “Florida-like tactics” in the absentee ballot issue (see 9:54 p.m. December 12, 2000). For its part, the Franken campaign is accusing the Coleman campaign of resorting to “baseless charges and innuendo.” Franken’s campaign is attempting to ascertain the names of the voters whose absentee ballots were rejected, with an eye to having them reconsidered. Studies have shown that rejected ballots tend to favor Democrats, leading elections expert Larry Jacobs to observe, “With the voter who tends to pull the lever for Democrats, there’s a little less dexterity.” One voter whose absentee ballot was rejected, Mark Jeranek, says his vote was set aside because he did not sign the envelope into which he placed his ballot. Jeranek voted for Franken, and has received an affidavit from the Franken campaign, which he is considering signing. “I don’t want to be a cause for revolution, but at the same time I want my vote to count,” he says. “It’s kind of neat—at least for a senatorial race—that it really does come down to every individual vote.” [Time, 11/17/2008; Weiner, 2010, pp. xviii]

Entity Tags: Mark Jeranek, Al Franken, Fritz Knaak, Mark Ritchie, Larry Jacobs, Norm Coleman, National Republican Senatorial Committee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2008 Elections

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