Ballot keepersAuditors take special steps to protect ballots for Senate race recount
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — In her 32 years in the Nobles County Auditor’s Office, Sharon Balster said the impending ballot recount in Minnesota’s senate race is the largest she will ever experience.
Inundated with phone calls from the offices of both Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and his Democratic challenger, Al Franken, Balster said Thursday that things are finally starting to quiet down a bit. It could be the calm before the storm that erupts on Wednesday, when auditor’s offices across the state begin a mandatory, hand-recount of all of the ballots.
Balster has been involved in recounts before — from township to city elections, but she said this one will be the largest.
“The Minge recount (in which incumbent David Minge lost to challenger Mark Kennedy in the 2nd District congressional race in 2000) was more court-ordered, where they brought in their own people to do the recount,” said Balster. “All we did was get the ballots to them.”
This time around, however, things are different.
In Nobles County, Balster has arranged for three teams of three individuals each to assist in the recount of the 8,886 ballots cast in the county. She anticipates the work will take a full eight hours.
“We’re hoping to get done on Wednesday, but if we can’t we’ll come back on Thursday,” Balster said. The recount will take place in the Farmer’s Room, in the lower level of the Nobles County Government Center in Worthington. The recount is open to the public, and Balster said the candidates will have their representatives on hand to watch and challenge any ballots deemed questionable.
Not all counties will begin their ballot recounts on Wednesday. In neighboring Rock County, Auditor-Treasurer Gloria Rolfs said her staff is still working on collecting second-half property taxes and gathering information for the Truth in Taxation hearing. She said counties have until Dec. 5 to conduct the recount and get the information to the Secretary of State’s office.
“I haven’t really cast anything in stone yet,” Rolfs said regarding the day they will conduct the recount.
Until the recount, all of Rock County’s ballots remain sealed and stored in a locked, fire-proof vault inside the auditor’s office. Rolfs said no one is allowed to enter the vault on their own — there must be two individuals entering it together — and a log must be kept of those who enter. Rolfs said she, too, has received numerous calls from both the Coleman and Franken camps regarding ballot security.
Murray County Auditor-Treasurer Heidi Winter said she has two teams of three individuals lined up to recount the 4,868 ballots in that county on Wednesday. The recount will begin at 10:30 a.m. in the Murray County Commissioner’s Room, and is open to the public.
This will be the third recount conducted in Murray County in the last two elections. Winter said they had a recount in the commissioner’s race during the primary, and participated in a state-wide recount in the Justice 4 race following last week’s general election.
The ballots in Murray County are secured in lockdown in the county ditch room, alongside all of the ditch histories for Murray County. Winter said it is one of the least-used rooms in the county government offices, and she is the only one with a key.
Since election night, the sealed boxes of ballots in Nobles County have been stored in an old, locked jail cell on the third floor of the Nobles County Government Center.
“We haven’t moved them since election night,” said Balster. “I’m the only one with any keys to get to that third floor and to the jail cell, so ours are pretty safe.
“In a way, we’re lucky we have this old jail,” she added. “A lot of (other counties) move them into evidence rooms in law enforcement centers — there is some traffic in and out of them.”
All in all, Balster said, “everyone is using whatever they can find that they feel is safe (to store the ballots).”
Storing ballots is nothing new for Nobles County. Balster said after any election the ballots are sealed and stored for 22 months.
“We’ve always done that — recount or not,” she said.
Since election night, Balster has had to meet special requests from both the Coleman and Franken campaigns — including making copies of all of the tapes from the counting machines, providing information on the number of absentee ballots mailed out, returned, accepted and rejected. Both political parties had representatives present at last Friday’s board of canvass meeting and Monday’s post-election review.
“My list of things to do is enormous,” Balster said.
Once all of the ballots have been hand counted next week, Balster said any challenged ballots will be sent to the Secretary of State’s office, where a state Canvassing Board will examine the ballots.