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The 2008 Senate recount went smoothly in Hubbard County as ballots were sorted and hand counted. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Recount costs for rural counties irk commmissioners

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A pending state recount of votes for Minnesota governor drew the ire of Hubbard County officials Wednesday just as GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer sought a recount delay via a court filing.

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The recount is scheduled to begin locally Nov. 29 at 9 a.m. Emmer wants the Minnesota Supreme Court to look into vote reconciliation during the general election, claiming in some precincts people may have cast more than one ballot. It was unclear by press time if that would delay the statewide recount. Oral arguments in the case are set for Monday.

To date, DFL candidate Mark Dayton leads Emmer by 8,800 votes. No winner has been declared.

"Taxpayers get burdened with these recounts year after year after year," groused commission Cal Johannsen. "It should be up to the person that loses to pay for the recount."

Johannsen said the margin of victory that triggers a recount is too low and legislators should be made aware of the burdens such activities impose on rural counties.

Minnesota law mandates a hand recount when the vote margin between candidates for state, federal or judicial office is less than .5 percent.

"If we can't declare a winner," said the frustrated commissioner, shaking his head for emphasis. "If we gotta count 'em by hand every time, what the hell?"

But auditor Pam Heeren pointed out that election reforms occurred after the yearlong 2008 Senate recount.

"They fine-tuned what you can challenge," she added.

Heeren said it's impossible to know how much the U.S. Senate recount in 2008 cost local taxpayers or how much the 2010 recount will cost.

"Since the Thursday after the election we've spent hours" responding to requests for information and making copies for the two political parties involved, she said.

Part of the difficulty in assessing the actual cost - which dwarfs the $300 the county receives from the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office for such an activity - is that departmental staff simply don't have time to log all the returned phone calls, the requests for information, the political inquiries.

It's constant.

"It would be almost impossible to go back and figure it out because there was so much time spent we didn't charge back to anybody," Heeren said.

In the 2008 election, only one challenged Hubbard County ballot out of nearly 12,000 cast went to the state for review, Heeren said.

"I'm not even sure that one changed," she said.

And the costs for the 2008 election are still rising because of a pending lawsuit by a Twin Cities TV station seeking to open all the rejected ballots, Heeren said

This year, out of 915 absentee ballots cast in Hubbard County, only six were rejected for procedural reasons, not because the voter's intent wasn't clear.

"The voter didn't sign it or the witness didn't sign it," Heeren explained. "They tell you to give the voter every advantage, which we did. We actually sent four back and got replacement ballots so we would have had 10. That's very low" of the 9,900 ballots cast Nov. 2.

Although Heeren will use an experienced staff of counters and sorters for the recount, there still is training involved prior to one. And Hubbard County officials put the voting machines to exhaustive tests prior to the election to make sure they're operating correctly, Heeren told the county board. Those costs aren't tallied overall.

Her office did incur 61 hours of paid overtime during the 2010 election, which she termed as reasonable.

"There's only 3,000 (rejected ballots) statewide and even if they agreed to open each and every one of those and they all went to one candidate, it's still not going to change the outcome," Heeren said of the statewide recount.

And that's why Johannsen has a problem with local taxpayers footing the tab when at the outset it's an exercise in futility.

"I can't imagine our system being that screwed up," he said.

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Sarah Smith
Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.
(218) 732-3364
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