Monday, April 20, 2009

Coleman Is the Real Comic in Contest With Franken

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by Ann Woolner

Ha! Ha! Ha! You gotta read this. Republicans claim laws to protect against vote fraud aren’t fair. Or, more specifically, they’re trying to get around them.

That’s right. REPUBLICANS! Pretty rich, eh? They’re the same folks who are always carping about keeping the unwashed and unregistered away from the voting booth (at least in Democratic neighborhoods) with all sorts of anti-fraud voting laws.

But that was before Republican Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota found himself flailing to hold on to his job. He is up against Democrat Al Franken, a comic best known to longtime viewers of “Saturday Night Live.”

Franken’s a hoot, but Coleman turns out to be the funny man in the race.

Get this: He wanted state judges to order officials to count absentee ballots cast by unregistered voters. Do you believe it? Oh, man. My sides hurt from laughing at that one.

Here’s a good one. Three judges, a Republican, a Democrat and an Independent, walk into a courtroom.

Seriously, folks, the decision this week from a panel of state judges appointed to the bench by governors of three different political persuasions was perfectly sober. The three of them agreed that Coleman doesn’t have what it takes to get reelected, namely, sufficient numbers of legal votes.

After a seven-week trial, which followed a scrupulously monitored recount, which came after what the judges called an essentially fair election, Franken wound up 312 votes ahead out of 2.4 million cast.

Get Specific

The judges said they were looking for ballot-specific proof that legitimate votes went uncounted. Coleman’s lawyers instead argued more generally, saying different counties tallied absentee votes differently.

Some places were more scrupulous than others in culling illegitimate votes, witnesses testified, so some bad ballots were counted in one place when they would have been excluded if they had been cast elsewhere.

Coleman’s lawyers called that a violation of equal protection, which forbids bias, and asked for a re-vote or some sort of pro-rated recalculation, neither of which the court can order.

As for “un-counting” supposedly tainted absentee ballots, state law won’t allow that, either. Once election officials open the secret vote contained inside the absentee ballot envelope, they have to count it.

So Coleman’s attorneys asked the judges to right the wrong with another wrong. They wanted them to order the counties that had thrown out seemingly faulty absentee ballots to open and count them.

An ‘Absurd’ Result

You want us to do WHAT, the judges answered, albeit in more judicious language. They said the result would be “absurd.”

It would mean if one county mistakenly let felons vote, then all counties would have to count the votes of felons, which Minnesota law forbids.

The judges found themselves having to remind the Coleman camp of the obvious.

“An individual must be registered to vote” for the ballot to count, the court ruled. That a Republican candidate was asking for something different is a riot.

Coleman’s isn’t the only side taking a position that we can charitably call uncharacteristic. Franken and his lawyers cling to Minnesota’s remarkably strict laws on absentee voting.

In Minnesota, it isn’t enough for an absentee voter to be registered. A witness to each absentee ballot has to be registered or a notary public.

Ballots Tossed Out

That doesn’t sound especially democratic or Democratic. But it’s just fine with the Franken crowd that thousands of absentee votes were tossed out, some no doubt for failing to meet some picayune requirement of state law.

And why should Franken complain? He wound up with more votes.

That wasn’t true at first. After the first count, Coleman was ahead, and Franken was the one pushing for more absentee ballots to be counted, which Coleman fought.

“It very easily could have been Franken making the equal protection argument,” says Edward Foley, an election law expert and professor at Ohio State University.

The Minnesota contest offers more proof, as if more were needed, that positions either party takes on election laws are driven by what benefits them, not a principled belief in how open or restricted voting should be.

For most of us, the validity of our votes is what counts, and the Minnesota contest represents a test of that, Foley notes. Can the system handle a close election?

Legitimate Voters

No one will ever know precisely who got the most legitimate votes in Minnesota because “the margin between the candidates is smaller than the margin of error in our election system,” says Rick Hasen, an election law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “It could have just as easily been Coleman who came out on top.”

As maddening as that thought is for Coleman and his supporters, all we can do is try to make election laws fair and see to it that they are fairly, if not perfectly, executed.

“Some side has to lose,” says Foley. But that’s easier to take when “we weren’t mistreated, the system wasn’t biased against us,” he says.

That is what happened here. The first tally put Coleman ahead by 206 votes, but Franken won the recount and every court test since.

Coleman is appealing the court ruling. He is still demanding that thousands of rejected absentee ballots be opened, after offering no proof of their legitimacy. It is time for him to concede and step aside.

For Minnesota to have gone this long without its second senator is no laughing matter.

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