The Unknown Senator
Lessons from a photo finish in Minnesota
Published January 13th 2009 in Washington Post
MINNESOTA WILL have to wait for the courts to decide who won its fiercely contested U.S. Senate race. But the verdict is already in on how the election process has been managed. Overall, there's much to admire about Minnesota's system and how its officials have behaved. Nonetheless, the cliffhanger should spur leaders there and elsewhere to look for even better ways to decide disputed elections.

A recently concluded hand recount by a five-member canvassing board produced a 225-vote lead for Democrat Al Franken over Republican incumbent  Norm Coleman. The board did not declare a winner; Mr. Coleman is contesting the election because there are issues -- such as the handling of some absentee ballots -- that need to be decided by a court panel with power to take testimony and conduct evidentiary hearings. Still, those who were disappointed by the canvassing board's final count have assailed -- unfairly, to our mind -- the integrity of its work. The board was bipartisan, included top jurists from the state, conducted all deliberations in public, was careful not to overstep its authority and was unanimous in all major decisions. Indeed, 58 percent of Minnesotans questioned in a recent survey found the process fair, with 61 percent explicitly approving of the job done by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat who chaired the board. Minnesota was better positioned to undertake a recount because of its experience with close votes; the 1962 governor's race, which was decided by 91 votes in a recount that took 139 days, led to useful reforms.

Still, officials should look for ways to avoid having important races decided when the margin of votes is smaller than the margin of error. Two Minnesota state lawmakers announced this week that they will push for legislation providing for a separate runoff in place of a recount when the top vote-getters are separated by half a percentage point or less. Georgia was well served in November by its requirement for a runoff when no Senate candidate gets 50 percent or more of the vote. Another option for elections with more than two participants -- such as this one -- is the instant runoff system, in which voters rank the candidates; if a voter's first choice doesn't reach a certain threshold, that vote is reapportioned to his or her second choice, increasing the chances for a decisive outcome.

Minnesota, like other states, needs to improve the system by which people vote by absentee ballot. More and more voters are opting to vote absentee; the number doubled this year in Minnesota. While we are mindful of concerns about voter fraud, there is no reason that the process can't be simplified, with better training of election workers. Then, too, there is merit to moving to a system, as Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) wants to do, that doesn't require voters to offer an excuse to vote by absentee ballot.

Finally, there is no reason for states not to allow early voting. Providing more time for people to cast their ballots proved an enormous success in last year's historic presidential election. It allows voters and election officials to troubleshoot problems, and it increases participation. In 2007, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) vetoed a bill that would have enabled early voting; that his state's Senate race has yet to be decided is one more reason to revisit that issue.