By Mark Fischenich
The Free Press
People attending the state Senate District 20 recount at the Le Sueur County courthouse in Le Center Thursday might have noticed some parallels to watching a Minnesota Twins game at Target Field in Minneapolis last summer.
There was a security to keep spectators away from the players, scorecards were available for those wanting to track the results, supporters were on hand to back the two teams competing for victory. There was even the recount equivalent of pine tar -- jars of Sort Quick for counters to apply to their fingers to get a better grip on the roughly 11,500 ballots being sorted and counted.
And another similarity to watching the Twins compete at Target Field the past two years: Everybody had a pretty good idea who was going to win.
Former Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, had a 78-vote lead when the 41,231 votes in the Senate race were counted on Election Day. When more than 17,000 ballots were checked in Rice County Wednesday, the margin fell to 75 after Republican Mike Dudley of New Prague picked up two more votes and Dahle lost one.
Dudley gained three more votes in the Le Sueur County recount Thursday, and Dahle added two -- dropping Dahle's margin to 74 with just Scott County ballots left to count today. So despite an extremely tight race, Dudley is behind by a bunch of runs in the bottom of the 9th inning and he's down to his final strike.
Former Le Sueur County Auditor Ron Germscheid, pitching in on the recount, was wearing a University of Minnesota sweatshirt, but he slipped into the baseball theme at one point.
"Now batting, Cleveland Township," Germscheid announced Thursday morning as his counting table switched to a new batch of ballots.
The 412 Cleveland Township ballots were sorted into three piles -- one for Dahle votes, one for Dudley votes and one for write-ins or ballots where the voter skipped the race -- under the watchful eyes of a representative of each candidate. Then the piles were sorted into groups of 25. Then they were counted.
Finally, Le Sueur County Elections Administrator Carol Blaschko broadcast the score.
"Cleveland Township. Dudley, 218. Dahle, 194. All other, 22," Blaschko said. "No challenges, no changes."
That last phrase was heard often from Blaschko Thursday.
"Le Sueur City, Ward 2 ...," she said. "No challenges, no changes." "Kilkenny Township ... No challenges, no changes." "Le Sueur City, Ward 1 ... No challenges, no changes."
And so it went, inning after inning as the 20 precincts were counted in just under six hours. The vast majority verified that the machine counts on Election Day were spot on. There were a few exceptions such as when Dahle gained a vote in Montgomery Township, probably the ballot where the voter had shaded the ovals next to candidate names so lightly that the machine likely missed some of them.
Only once did a representative of either campaign challenge a ruling by Blaschko's counters -- a Heidelberg ballot that the elections official ruled a Dahle vote. That one will go to the State Canvassing Board, a panel of judges, who will issue a final ruling. If the board agrees with the challenge, Dahle will lose one of the two votes he gained in Thursday's recount.
But typically, even the two lawyers on hand for Dahle and Dudley overruled suggested challenges by the campaign volunteers seated at the counting table.
"We've got some writing, splitting the ticket also," a Dudley volunteer told Dudley attorney Lucas Nesse, who wandered over to take a look. Nesse said it was clearly a vote for Dahle and didn't object to its placement in the Democrat's stack.
Both sides seemed impressed with the way Le Sueur County handled the recount.
"These guys really do it right," Dahle attorney Brian Rice said to a Dahle volunteer at one point.
Blaschko said the recounts can serve a purpose beyond double-checking the results of close races, something done automatically in Minnesota if the margin of victory is less than one-half of 1 percent. Thursday's recount, and those done in 2008 and 2010 following razor-thin victories in U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races, provide proof that the Election Day counts are virtually right on the dot.
"The machines are very accurate," she said, adding that the vast majority of voters also deserve credit for how carefully they fill out their ballot.
Gary Eagen, a retired teacher from Le Sueur, volunteered to watch the recount on behalf of Dahle after doing the same for Gov. Mark Dayton in his 2010 recount. Eagen said he has even more faith in Minnesota elections after seeing the results double-checked.
"I didn't feel negative about the election system before," he said. "But now I feel more confident. It's for real. It works."