The day after he named the members to the State Canvassing Board in the 2008 U.S. Senate race recount Secretary of State Mark Ritchie received two blistering phone calls from a Democrat and a Republican.
The Democrat complained no DFLers were on the board. The Republican complained that by choosing Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices to the panel he had removed them from any future recount decisions by the high court.
"Oh my God!," he recalled saying to himself at the time. "Is it going to be like this the whole time?"
Administering a "high-octane recount" that attracted nation-wide attention was one of the memorable experiences for the first-term secretary of state in an election that he described as historic in many ways.
Ritchie was the featured speaker Tuesday in a program sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Brainerd Lakes Area and the Brainerd Dispatch at the Central Lakes College cafeteria in Brainerd.
The 2008 general election was the largest election in terms of participation in Minnesota history, he said. Statewide turnout was at 78 percent, six percentage points higher than the second highest state (Wisconsin).
RItchie had high praise for the county auditors, city clerks and election judges who conducted the recount in Minnesota's 87 counties. He said that 99.99 percent of the time the lawyers for Democrat Al Franken and then-Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn. agreed with the election officials on the intent of a particular ballot. Only one-tenth of 1 percent of the ballots were challenged, he said.
After the statewide recount, Ritchie said there were only 14 disputed ballots out of 2.93 million ballots cast.
He said he was also proud of the transparency of the recount and noted that a newspaper Web site showed the ballots and readers were able to comment on them.
Ritchie said that a poll that was conducted after the election dispute was over found that 67 percent of Minnesotans felt good about the recount, 15 percent felt it was unfair to Coleman, 15 percent felt it was unfair to Franken and 8 percent had no opinion. This sentiment was reaffirmed by the feedback Ritchie encountered at the Minnesota State Fair.
"People were grateful the process made them proud of Minnesota," he said. "We have this very high (voter) participation because people trust in the system."
Ritchie said he received a death threat at one point in the recount process and his office received 1,000 vulgar e-mails after radio broadcaster Rush Limbaugh talked about an election being stolen in Minnesota.
In responding to what appeared to be a sore point that persisted in the election recount aftermath, Ritchie addressed what he termed as the lie about missing ballots that allegedly spent the night in the trunk of an election official's car in Minneapolis. He said it was a lie made up by an attorney and intentionally released to a newspaper. The lie was repeated in editions of the Wall Street Journal, he said.
"The infuriating thing about this lie is that it stuck," he said describing what he called one of the darkest moments of the recount.
The story was used to imply that "fraudulent urban people were trying to steal the election," according to Ritchie. The secretary of state said that the attorney responsible for spreading the story still has not "cleaned up this lie."
Coleman attorneys, he said, were repeatedly asked by judges if they were alleging that any fraud that took place. They responded in the negative, even though Ritchie said the lawyers "spent $24 million looking for it."
In the months preceding the election there were clues that voter turnout would be historically high. Informal estimates pegged Minnesota caucus participation at about double the previous counts for Republicans and four times the previous years for Democrats.
"Our system, of course, is not perfect," Ritchie said. "As long as we let people vote we're stuck with that.
"We are always going to have individuals making mistakes and doing dumb things. As long as we let human beings be part of the mix there are going to be mistakes."
Ritchie addressed other election issues.
• The number of absentee ballots was about 300,000 or about 10 percent. Use of the absentee ballots is on an upward curve and the state needs to take that into consideration.
• Thirty-eight states have established rules to allow for more early voting and that seems to be a trend.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.