Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Al Franken's lead in the Minnesota Senate race is 251 votes right now, but, according to informal counts, after the Minnesota State Canvassing Board accounts later today for vote challenges withdrawn by the two campaigns, Franken will still be ahead, but by just 48 votes. In case you're counting, 48 votes out of 2.4 million votes cast for the two main candidates is a lead of 0.002% -- that's 1/500 of 1%.

Moreover, today's meeting will not end the counting. Still to be resolved are claims by the Coleman campaign that some votes were accidentally counted twice, and how to deal with perhaps 1600 absentee ballots that may have been improperly rejected. There's a long way to go.

I remarked before that where the vote totals are separated by less than 1/100 of 1%, there just doesn't seem to be a way to determine the winner accurately. Obviously that observation applies all the more to vote totals separated by 1/500 of 1%. I'm ready to assume that all five members of the State Canvassing Board are acting in perfect good faith and doing their very best to count every vote with perfect honesty and accuracy. But after watching them squirrel through piles of ballots last week in a moment of confusion, I am hard pressed to believe that they are noting every decision and getting everything right, not just most of the time, but more than 99.998% of the time.

Normally, if people doing some kind of drudgework -- like counting vote after vote after vote -- made a mistake only one time in every 10,000, you'd probably think they were doing a great job. Counting 9,999 votes accurately and accidentally putting just one in the wrong pile seems like excellent work to me. But in this case, mistaking one vote out of every 10,000 would result in 240 incorrectly counted votes -- five times the margin of victory. Of course the mistakes might tend to cancel each other out (if they were random mistakes, that would often be the case), but if the mistakes were even slightly the result of a (possibly unconscious) bias in favor of one of the candidates, they could totally overwhelm the honest difference in the vote totals.

I'm not envying the Canvassing Board their jobs. And the worst of it is, even when they finish (if they ever do), there's still a potential court challenge and a potential Senate challenge.

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