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Recounts frustrate, convince candidates

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ST. PAUL -- Minnesotans may think an election recount involves election judges wielding magnifying glasses while attorneys and reporters peer over their shoulders. So what's really going to be involved in the U.S. Senate race recount that will start later this month?

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U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson said an election recount is not something he would wish on anybody.

"It makes your election night drag on for two months," Peterson said, recalling his unsuccessful 1986 congressional bid that was settled by recount. "It's no fun."

Peterson, a Detroit Lakes Democrat, remembered election judges, attorneys and the courts taking over in his recount, which he requested after coming up 121 votes short of then-Rep. Arlan Stangeland.

"You're in limbo and there's nothing you can do about it," he said. "It's one thing if you're in a tough race and you can at least go out and campaign and burn off your energy doing that. In a recount, you can't do anything. You just sit there."

Election officials and political observers are turning to previous Minnesota election recounts for comparison as they prepare for a historic recount in the closely watched U.S. Senate race. A manual review of the 2.9 million ballots cast is planned in the race between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken.

From municipal races on up, there is drama in any election recount, but it is heightened in high-stakes congressional and statewide contests. Lawsuits challenging the outcomes often are filed. Candidates and voters alike await the results as campaign partisans flock to county courthouses to scrutinize the recount.

A 2000 Minnesota congressional recount lacked the frenzied atmosphere of that year's presidential recount in Florida, but still had narrow voting margins and widespread interest.

Then-U.S. Rep. David Minge came up short in his re-election bid against Republican Mark Kennedy, and sought a recount in the southwestern Minnesota district.

Kennedy was leading by 155 votes out of almost 300,000 cast when Minge conceded.

Now a state appellate judge, Minge said while the outcome did not change, he "was reassured with the integrity of the process."

"When we went through this and saw the care that the local election officials used in running the election and counting ballots, I guess it renewed one's faith in the integrity of the voting system of Minnesota," he said.

Minge did not linger in courthouses during his nearly two-week recount. He was in Washington, where Congress went back in session shortly after the election. During closed-door meetings, fellow Democrats inquired about the recount.

"People were following it with interest ... but most of the day was devoted to the business of being a U.S. representative and (the recount) ran its course," he said.

Recounts can pose logistical challenges and difficult decisions. Minge said a candidate must pick a recount team and decide how much of his own time will be dedicated to the recount.

For Stangeland, that was minimal. Republican legal experts flew in from Washington to guide the then-GOP congressman's 1986 recount with Peterson.

"As a candidate, I sat on the sidelines," said Stangeland of Pelican Rapids. "I didn't know a thing that was going on. We had lawyers all over that took care of it. It was in their hands."

Stangeland, who retained his seat after the 1986 recount but lost it to Peterson in 1990, said human errors were detected during his recount, but he had general confidence in the election system.

The U.S. Senate recount is expected to start later this month, but it may not resolve the contest that has Coleman narrowly leading. If the recount process continues into January, state courts or the U.S. Senate could declare the seat vacant, allowing Gov. Tim Pawlenty to appoint a senator. That person would serve until another election in November 2009.

The most famous Minnesota election recount came in the 1962 governor's race, when Democrat Karl Rolvaag challenged GOP Gov. Elmer L. Andersen. After a recount that continued into the following spring, a judicial panel declared Rolvaag the winner by 91 votes. During the 139-day recount, Andersen stayed in office as governor and Rolvaag lead his recount effort from a basement office at the Capitol complex.

"He accepted it," 91-year-old Homer Bonhiver of Shoreview recalled of his ally Rolvaag's position. "It wasn't as divisive as elections are now."

The 1962 recount led Bonhiver to get involved in a 1973 Twin Cities-area state Senate election recount. He helped Jim Lord, who appeared to have lost the contest but was deemed the winner after a recount.

Bonhiver's lucky streak continued when he helped daughter-in-law Melanie Ford oversee her recount in the 2006 St. Louis County attorney race. Election results indicated Ford lost by 53 votes out of more than 80,000 cast, but a recount fell in her favor as she won by 88 votes.

"My advice to Franken would be to call my father-in-law," Ford joked.

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Forces outside the campaigns can influence election recounts.

A bitter congressional spat linger from a different election seeped into the Peterson-Stangeland recount, Peterson said. Republicans did not want to lose that race after having lost an earlier election they said was unfairly handed to the Democrat.

"We got drug into that whole deal," he said.

A candidate's actions during a recount are closely watched - or, in Peterson's case, joked about. The western Minnesota Democrat said that at the urging of Democrats on Capitol Hill, he went to Washington for new member orientation before his recount was settled.

Peterson said that "turned out to be a bad idea. It sent the wrong message to people."

"It was spun back home that I was being uppity because I was acting like I won," he said, adding that "in the thick of it, it makes sense. It's just an orientation."

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