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Auditors now must brace for the next round in the Senate race

In this Dec. 11, 2008, Tribune file photo, Kandiyohi County Auditor Sam Modderman looks over ballots. County auditors are now awaiting the next step in the U.S. Senate process.

WILLMAR -- Even though a winner was certified Monday in the U.S. Senate race, county auditors are bracing for the next shoe to drop.

Questions about which absentee ballots were counted and which ones were rejected will most certainly be addressed again in any court challenge.

About all auditors can do is give a big sigh and be ready for the next course of action.

Kandiyohi County Auditor Sam Modderman said his worst fear is that counties will be asked to conduct an entirely new recount of every ballot.

Meeker County Auditor Barb Loch shudders with the thought of beginning the process over again. The way ballots were recounted with eagle-eye observers watching the procedure, Loch said a recount wouldn't make any difference. "I can't believe that in our county that we could've counted them wrong," Loch said.

But the ballots are "still in high security" until challenges are settled in the race, she said.

County auditors have spent untold hours in the Senate recount process and are not looking forward to more work that could happen with a court challenge.

Swift County Auditor Byron Giese said he's spent the equivalent of 14 eight-hour days doing just ballot recount work.

E-mails with huge attachments, including 50- to 100-page legal documents, have been flooding the auditors' in-box for weeks.

Giese said he spent a good hour Saturday reading through recount e-mails. Ditto for Modderman, who said he sends many of those documents to County Attorney Boyd Beccue for review, which increases the county's time and cost in the process even more.

Loch said the e-mails and their multiple attachments have "taken a tremendous amount of time" to read. "My e-mail was just downloaded and stuck many times because of the astronomical volume."

It wouldn't be so bad if the time-consuming e-mails, with legal resolutions and directions, had come from the office of Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. But many have come directly from the campaigns.

If there's one thing Modderman would like changed in the recount process, it would be that auditors receive direction only from the Secretary of State. "We should have one source of information," Modderman said.

According to the auditors, much of the work with the recount was unnecessary and could have been avoided, they say, if state law had been followed.

"I don't know how more clearly you can make the rules," Loch said. The varied interpretations of the law are where problems arose.

Giese said the recount could have been done by Nov. 30 if the rules had been followed and the campaigns would not have been allowed to have a say in which of the wrongly rejected absentee ballots would end up being counted. "It was unheard of the way we handled the rejected absentee ballots," Giese said.

During the rush of election night counting, some absentee ballots were rejected for a specific reason, like not being registered, when in fact the voter was registered.

The Supreme Court ruled that both campaigns had to agree on whether those wrongly rejected absentee ballots should be counted or not.

"That was one of the biggest surprises I had," said Giese. "I thought statute determined what absentee ballots were to be counted."

A ballot either meets the requirement to be counted or it doesn't, said Giese.

The recount provided an opportunity for wrongly rejected absentee ballots to be discovered, said Giese. But because the campaigns had veto power, local officials "were unable to correct our errors."

Giese said local election judges should have decided the absentee ballots and the canvassing board should have taken action on the recount tallies in November and then let the campaigns contest the results. "That's what the statute said we should've done."

Modderman said this election has been a learning experience for local and state officials on what to do and what not to do.

Loch said county auditors will be meeting next week for their annual conference. There's no question the recount will be the topic of the elections committee and that recommendations for "housekeeping" clarifications or changes in legislation will be forthcoming.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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