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Officials try to sort out ballot confusion
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
October 28, 2002


Minnesota elections officials are still sorting out polling details in the wake of DFL Sen. Paul Wellstone's death last week. Democratic Attorney General Mike Hatch advised county auditors to continue issuing absentee ballots with Wellstone's name, despite pleas by DFL officials to wait until a new nominee has been identified.

Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer and Attorney General Mike Hatch meet reporters on Monday.
(MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)

In his advisory opinion, Attorney General Hatch affirmed the position of Republican Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer. Democrat Hatch says withholding absentee ballots until state DFL officials certify a replacement for Senator Wellstone risks depriving too many Minnesotans of their right to vote. He notes that Democrats aren't expected to meet until Wednesday, leaving very little time to print new ballots, mail them out, and receive them before next week's vote.

"The danger here of disenfranchising people on all their votes is just highly inappropriate. It wasn't the secretary who chose Wednesday night," Hatch said.

State DFL chair Mike Erlandson wasn't immediately available to comment on Hatch's opinion. But earlier in the day he called on Kiffmeyer to delay processing absentee ballots until they had been amended to include the new DFL Senate candidate (Listen).

"We know that citizens of Minnesota, in their heart of hearts, still would like to vote for Sen. Wellstone. And, unfortunately, that vote is not valid. And so to send out a ballot that contains -- that is not valid -- is just not fair to voters in the state of Minnesota. And we would expect that she would make it clear to county auditors how to address that situation. And she has not," he said.

Voters who vote in person on election day will simply use a supplemental ballot prepared specially for the Senate race, and Hatch and Kiffmeyer have resolved a point of confusion on that issue. Hatch says Kiffmeyer has the authority to stray from the exact letter of state statute and amend the instructions at the top of the ballot to make it clear voters may only choose one candidate for Senate.

State DFL chair Mike Erlandson called on Kiffmeyer to delay processing absentee ballots until they had been amended to include the new DFL Senate candidate (Listen).

Kiffmeyer, however, says voters who use an absentee ballot with Wellstone's name can still make good use of the ballot's write-in option. No candidate has been identified, but it's widely expected former vice president Walter Mondale will fill Wellstone's spot on the ticket.

"It is a difficult circumstance. It is a choice that the voter has. But that's an option that they have that currently anybody who has an absentee ballot in hand may use that write-in option," she said.

If voters have already voted by absentee ballot for Wellstone, they have two options for amending the ballot. They can request, in person, the special, supplemental ballot, after it is prepared, which is not likely to be before Thursday. Or they can arrive at their polling places on election day and their absentee ballots will be set aside in preference of their new, in-person ballots.

For those who've already voted for Wellstone absentee and are out-of-state and unable to amend that vote, Hatch says they are essentially out of luck. That prospect, says Gov. Jesse Ventura, could prompt legal battles.

"I fully... expect there'll be litigation. I can't see a way around this because -- and I think it's going to come in the form of how the election is held -- it's very difficult to say it's a fair election when they've already said that anyone that voted absentee with the name Paul Wellstone won't be counted, and anyone who voted absentee with the name Norm Coleman will be counted," Ventura said.

Ventura says the prospect of protracted litigation could force him to appoint a temporary replacement to represent the state. He declined to say who he might appoint, but he says he'd seek someone who wasn't trying to use the situation to advance his or her political career.

Hatch, too, says the situation is rife for political mischief, although he didn't spell out what legal action might ensue.

"The closer the election, the likelihood of a lawsuit is higher. And given the fact that this'll be a hand-counted process, which we haven't had in a while, and given the fact that you've got such a close division within the U.S. Senate, I wouldn't doubt that there would be a lawsuit," Hatch said.

With or without a lawsuit, election results will likely take longer to tally than usual. Kiffmeyer says elections officials will most likely hand-count the Senate supplemental ballots first, before moving on to the other races.

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