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As Minnesota prepares to recount the razor-close Senate battle between Norm Coleman and Al Franken (with Dean "Monkeywrench" Barkley also in the mix), I am vividly reminded of the Washington gubernatorial race of four years ago.

In Gregoire-Rossi I, Washington state undertook a similar recount operation (thankfully, Gregoire-Rossi II was different).  As I reported exhaustively at the time, 2004 WA-Gov went through an intermediate machine recount, but in other ways the two elections are strikingly similar:

  • Ballots cast -- 2004 WA 2.88 million, 2008 MN 2.92 million
  • Original margin -- 2004 WA 261 (Rossi ahead), 2008 MN 206 (Coleman ahead)

One immense difference is evident -- the pricetag.  Is the projected cost of the recount in Minnesota laughably low?  Did Washington attempt to make a pile of profit out of what it charged Gregoire and the WA Dems (though, due to the reversal of the margin, that prepayment was refunded)?

I can't really answer those questions, though it's not impossible that both answers are YES.  Below the fold, a bit of detail on the supposed costs of the two statewide recounts.

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has been widely quoted as estimating that the upcoming hand recount of the MN-Sen race will cost the state in the range of $86,000-$90,000.  That estimate arises from his statements that the recount will cost 3 cents per ballot.  As of Monday afternoon, the MN SoS office estimated that 2,920,180 voters cast ballots on November 4.  Thus, if the per-ballot cost is precisely correct, the cost of the 2008 MN-Sen recount will come to exactly:

$87,605.40

As you may recall, in the first certified count of the 2004 Washington gubernatorial election, Republican Dino Rossi led Democrat Chris Gregoire by 261 votes.  There was also a third party candidate in the race, with Libertarian Ruth Bennett receiving a bit over two percent of the vote.  State law mandated a machine recount of the ballots, which appreciably narrowed the gap to 42 votes ... Rossi still in the lead.

At that point, Gregoire and the Washington State Democrats had to prepay a fee if they wanted to undertake a second recount, this time by hand.  As I wrote on November 30, 2004, that prepaid fee, supposedly to defray the estimated cost of carrying out the recount, was 25 cents per ballot.  Though I'm not certain how big a check the WA Dems actually wrote, we can estimate from that per-ballot number and the officially counted number of votes cast (2,884,783), that it was somewhere around:

$721,195.75

Can there be a rational explanation for a greater than eight-fold difference between the estimated hand recount costs for Washington in 2004 and Minnesota in 2008?  I can't come up with any.  The number of ballots is very similar; in fact, there are more ballots in MN than in WA.  Additionally, a not-insignificant number of the 2004 WA ballots, poll ballots in Snohomish and Yakima Counties, were cast on no-paper-trail DREs and thus "recounted" by merely recopying counts from the voting machines.

But that's not the end of the story.  Happily, when the outcome of the WA-Gov race was reversed by the second recount, the WA Dems got their money back.  So, as in Minnesota, the taxpayers footed the bill for the hand recount.  In addition, the Washington Secretary of State helpfully produced a table detailing the actual election and recount costs billed by each county.  It turns out that the WA Dems prepayment (according to this accounting) underestimated the cost of the hand recount.  Adding up all 39 counties, the pricetag for the 2004 WA-Gov hand recount came to:

$902,793.29

That's 31.3 cents per ballot.  That's over ten times the per-ballot cost stated by Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

One, or both, of those price figures is way out of line.  I suspect it's Minnesota's estimate.  In addition to the Washington numbers shown above, we can marshal evidence from the New Hampshire presidential primary back in January.  Remember that?  It cost Dennis Kucinich $27,000 to recount about 40% of the ballots.  That comes to around 113,000 hand-recounted, which I'd estimate at 23.9 cents per ballot.  That's just a tenth of a cent away from New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner's estimate of the per-ballot cost, and much closer to Washington's price than Minnesota's quoted number.

Is Ritchie intentionally low-balling the pricetag?  Is he unaware of the historical precedents we note here?  Does Minnesota total up the cost of a recount using different accounting categorizations?  Again, I have no way of knowing.

But don't be surprised if Ritchie significantly raises his estimated cost figure, perhaps while the recount is underway.

Originally posted to Peace Tree Farm on Thu Nov 13, 2008 at 01:17 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  tip jar (15+ / 0-)

    Maybe to help Mark Ritchie when he has to give his fellow Minnesotans the news about what it's really going to cost them.

    The way to win is not to move to the right wing; the way to win is to move to the right policy. -- Nameless Soldier

    by N in Seattle on Thu Nov 13, 2008 at 01:19:05 PM PST

    •  MN-taxpayer willing to pay (5+ / 0-)

      As long as the recount reveals the accurate will of the people.

      (yes, even if it turns out to be Coleman)

    •  Reply to the cost (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      N in Seattle, rincewind

      I was an election judge for the 2006 election and I was slated to help again this year but campaigned instead.
      I tried to volunteer for the recount but the county auditor is using judges from this election. The way I understand it we are just going to go thru a hand count like election day. It shouldn't take too much time to sort the ballots in each precinct into the Coleman pile and the Franken pile and the disputed intent pile. Once that is done and the totals counted the paid staff are done. With the disputed ballots going to on for further review by SoS Richie and his panel of judges.

      I don't hit. But I do hit back

      by mcgee85 on Thu Nov 13, 2008 at 03:04:08 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  hmmmm, all disputes go straight to the state CB? (0+ / 0-)

        Doesn't each county's Canvassing Board get involved?

        If you're right, it makes for a more trustworthy outcome than the patchwork of often-unprepared county CBs that we had in WA-Gov.  We never saw one single bit of ballot decision-making at the state level.

        How does Minnesota get past the standard American overreliance on federalism?

        The way to win is not to move to the right wing; the way to win is to move to the right policy. -- Nameless Soldier

        by N in Seattle on Thu Nov 13, 2008 at 03:16:05 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  No County Canvassing Board Determinations (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          N in Seattle, rincewind

          For a statewide recount, all disputes go directly to state canvassing board (Secretary of State and four judges).  No machine recount at all.  I know it sounds cheap, but Minnesota just did a statewide recount in September for Supreme Court seat primary election, so I would bet that our Secretary of State knows what that cost and thinks this would be similar.  All the Coleman goons might jack up the cost, which should be on his nickel.  

  •  I think the question (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    N in Seattle

    may come down paid staffers vs volunteers.

    But since I don't know how WA, MN or NH do their recounts I am guessing other hearing Gov, Pawlenty say they had a great group of volunteers doing the recount.

    In the choice between changing ones mind and proving there's no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof.

    by jsfox on Thu Nov 13, 2008 at 01:24:49 PM PST

    •  in WA... (0+ / 0-)

      ...the recounters volunteered.  

      But they were then paid, at least in King County.  I believe it was minimum wage.

      The way to win is not to move to the right wing; the way to win is to move to the right policy. -- Nameless Soldier

      by N in Seattle on Thu Nov 13, 2008 at 01:26:47 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Very good questions. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    N in Seattle

    I can only speculate on the difference in cost, but as a Minnesota resident, I know we have one of the highest tax rates in the country, so maybe that's factored into our election costs already? For example, maybe 90% of a recount is already budgeted for?

    Or perhaps it's all done by volunteers (sans lawyers, natch)...? I know of many people who have signed up to volunteer.

    Interesting diary. Thanks!

    •  thanks, Matt (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Matt Esler

      I can't imagine that the lawyer fees for the two state Supreme Court cases, the election contest in the spring of 2005, or for the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, and who knows what else are included in the Washington recount costs.

      Those lawyer fees would undoubtedly dwarf whatever it took to actually carry out the recount process.

      The way to win is not to move to the right wing; the way to win is to move to the right policy. -- Nameless Soldier

      by N in Seattle on Thu Nov 13, 2008 at 01:36:59 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  MN ballots are printed on lefsa. The ballot (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    N in Seattle

    counters can eat them afterward so there's no pizza and donuts expense in the recount operation.

  •  Yeah, everything's Washington to you, isn't it? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    N in Seattle

    Just kidding.

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