Republican volunteers keep an eye on ballots for recount
BENSON -- James Thelen spent at least two hours sitting on a hard wooden chair in the Swift County Auditor's office Wednesday quietly reading a copy of the "National Review" magazine.
The longtime Republican volunteer from Benson was there to make sure no one tampered with the county's ballots, especially the votes for Sen. Norm Coleman.
"That's what they're worried about," said Thelen, who responded to a call reportedly generated from Coleman's campaign office that was filtered down through a series of volunteers.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said Wednesday he learned through a news release that Coleman supporters were watching ballot box sites.
"I thought, 'Oh, come on,'" Ritchie said. "These ballots are locked and under special care."
Ritchie, the state's top election official, said having partisans watching over secured ballots is "an attempt to create the impression that there's some kind of monkey business or something funny (occurring)."
"It flies in the face of and calls into question Sen. Coleman's very eloquent statement about his trust and belief in the election administration in this state," Ritchie said.
Andrea Haase, another Swift County Republican Party volunteer from rural Benson, took over the post from Thelen around 1 p.m. and planned to stay until the courthouse closed at 4:30 p.m.
"You've got to sit right in that chair," Thelen told Haase good-naturedly about her task. He said he hoped she had brought along something to read. She had.
"They just want us to keep an eye on the ballot boxes to make sure there's no tampering," said Haase, a cheerful woman who was ready to put in her time. "This came up very fast."
Republican supporters of Coleman were stationed at several area county auditor's offices Wednesday, the day after a tight election between Coleman and DFL challenger Al Franken that's headed for a recount.
Lois Bonde, Yellow Medicine County auditor, said two people were sitting at her office in Granite Falls on Coleman's behalf.
"I guess they can sit to their heart's content," Bonde said.
Given the close race, she was not surprised a Coleman representative was there, but said the ballots were "all locked in a vault."
Byron Giese, Swift County auditor, said a Coleman representative from Bloomington was at his office by 7 a.m., for the first shift of volunteer observers.
"I guess it's their right," Giese said. "I have no idea what good it's going to do."
The Swift County ballots were also in a vault.
"It makes no sense. None. If they don't trust me in the first place, they should've been here at 8 o'clock last night," Giese said.
Minnesota State Auditor Rebecca Otto said in a statement Wednesday "There is a process in place set out in state statute to deal with races that are this close, and we should respect that process."
Nathan Collins, a farmer from Murdock, recruited Thelen and Haase to keep watch after he had receive a call from someone connected to the Coleman campaign.
With the close election, Collins said "we wanted to make sure the integrity of the system is upheld."
He has "no doubt" about the system's purity and said "no disrespect" is intended to anyone who participated in the election process.
"There's no reason to believe anything can happen," said Collins, in an interview from his combine. But, he said, "We want people there in case something does happen."
It's best to "alleviate any allegations" and potential wrongdoing "ahead of the game," Collins said.
And besides, he said, auditor's offices are public buildings and citizens can sit there and read a book every day if they want to.
Collins said he doubted volunteers would continue to be stationed at the offices until the recounts are conducted. Ritchie told the Tribune's Capitol Bureau that the recount will not begin until Nov. 19, at the earliest.
"No one can expect someone to baby-sit all the time, that's not what we're doing," said Collins. The volunteers send the message that "this is something very important to us." He said it would be a "disgrace" if someone tried to interfere with the system. "We're there to make sure no suspicious activity happens."
Coleman watchers also made brief appearances at the Meeker County and Kandiyohi County auditor's offices but did not stay.
A call to Coleman's campaign office was not returned.
State Capitol Bureau reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.