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On the Fritz

Minnesota voters looked back into the face of '70s liberalism, and flinched.

1:22 PM, Nov 6, 2002 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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THE "VOTIN' MINNESOTANS" (you have to say it with the accent) have done it again. Republican Norm Coleman has squeaked by former vice president Walter Mondale in an election featuring record turnout and a few lessons in campaign strategy.

Minnesota is known for its high voter turnout--it usually exceeds the national average by about 20 points--but with an estimated two-thirds of eligible voters showing up at the polls for a mid-term election in the snow, they may have set some records this year. Some polls were still open as late as 10 p.m. in an attempt to accommodate the flood of voters. Mike Erlandson, head of the State Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, boasted, "In Minnesota, we have the highest voter turnout in the country--always."

Minnesota is also known for its clean elections. So much so that it's unlikely anyone will challenge the results of the supplemental ballot count, even given the tiny margin. Just to be sure, though, state Republican spokesman Bill Walsh said party leaders dispatched more than 2,000 volunteers to monitor the hand count at about 1,900 precincts. The Senate race was blocked on the electronic ballot (which still showed Wellstone's name) and each voter was given a paper ballot to be dropped in a box and counted by hand. "I feel good," Walsh said, noting that there were essentially no reported problems. "We've got hundreds of people at the polls watching, and lawyers sitting around the headquarters with not much to do."

There are some potential lawsuits on the horizon, however, over absentee ballots. Officials say at least 40,000 absentee ballots were cast for Wellstone, which, by state law, could not be transferred to Mondale. New absentee ballots were not available until Friday. If the margins are close enough--and they look like they might be--Democrats may claim the Wellstone voters were unfairly disenfranchised and file suit. "Let's say that on Wednesday, 5,000 more absentee ballots arrive," says Alex Vogel, general counsel of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "State law says you only count them until Election Day, but Democrats will say, 'Oh no, we've got to keep counting.' I'm concerned that they are going to try to go back to court if they don't like the election results."

The law in Minnesota is very clear, and Vogel seems confident that Coleman's win will stand up to legal challenges, but after this year's New Jersey candidate switcheroo, anything is possible. The strength of the appeal will rest on how many of the people who filed absentee votes for Wellstone made it to the polls to re-vote, or submitted the new absentee ballots on time. Vote counters are still engaged in the time-consuming process of cross-checking ballots cast on Election Day with absentee ballots, so it will be a while before the numbers crystallize.

The lawsuits will be resolved in time, and it looks like Coleman is on solid ground (he leads by just under 40,000 votes), but of lasting interest from this year's Minnesota Senate race is voter response to the Wellstone memorial/pep rally. Covered extensively by local and national press, the event might well become a staple of "what not to do" in campaign strategy memos. "We can't let this turn into another Wellstone memorial fiasco" strategists will say, wagging fingers at each other.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Democratic campaigning at Wellstone's memorial went over poorly with voters. Minnesotans were more likely to have seen the memorial than the debate, and they took away the memorable images of a laughing Bill Clinton and the back of Ventura's head as he walked out in disgust. GOP strategist Rich Galen said a backlash against the tone and content of the service may have caused to "a light Republican breeze" on election night.

And a light breeze was all Coleman needed to blow Mondale away.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.