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:
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:
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:
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.