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Court orders new absentee ballots
By Elizabeth Stawicki
Minnesota Public Radio
October 31, 2002

Minnesota's Supreme Court on Thursday ordered local election officials to send out new absentee ballots to people who ask to change their Senate vote in the wake of Sen. Paul Wellstone's death. The ruling fell short of what the Democrats wanted: the mailing of new ballots to all absentee voters, whether they ask for a new ballot or not.

•Alan Weinblatt, an attorney for the Democratic-Farmer Labor Party. Listen
•Attorney General Mike Hatch defended the absentee balloting process. Listen
•Patrick Diamond, representing Hennepin County, argued that votes are entitled to new ballots.Listen
•GOP attorney Tony Trimble argued against a mass mailing of absentee ballots to those who obtained them earlier. Listen
•Alan Weinblatt was given a rebuttal opportunity. Listen

Acting just hours after hearing arguments in the case, the court's seven justices didn't detail their reasoning. But the order requires election officials to fulfill requests for new ballots and count the most recent one they receive.

Democrats maintained they're at a disadvantage because absentee votes already cast for Wellstone don't roll over to the new nominee Walter Mondale. But, those votes already cast for Republican Norm Coleman would have counted toward his total.

The attorney representing the DFL Alan Weinblatt asked the court to do what he said was reasonable.

"We have been told we ran out of luck. Your honors, we did run out of luck. It's true; we ran out of luck last Friday when an airplane went down. But we haven't run out of the law, we haven't run out of justice, we haven't run out of fairness. None of us control the matter of luck. But the seven of you control the matters of justice, fairness and law. And that's what we ask you to do," he said.

Weinblatt argued that the state should send out new supplemental ballots to all absentee voters and let them decide whether their ballot is still valid or is what election officials term "spoiled."

If they decide the ballot is spoiled they could then recast their votes. GOP lawyer Tony Trimble argued that the party doesn't object to allowing counties to give new supplemental ballots to absentee voters, as long as the voters take the initiative to ask for them.

"I draw the line that government should not presume that people wish to change their vote and government should not engage in some wholesale mailing to people that have voted or people who are holding ballots already or people awaiting ballots to arrive in the mail. The government should do nothing more than respond to the affirmative request of the voter," according to Trimble.

The attorney general, representing the Secretary of State's office, says the law dictates that counties should not send out new ballots even if voters request them. But several counties, including Hennepin -- the state's largest -- disregarded those instructions.

Attorney General Mike Hatch said he had no plans to intervene with those counties because he says voters shouldn't be punished for their county's mistake. Hatch told the court that his office has searched the law and found nothing that says ballots may be considered spoiled after they've been cast.

"I think it remains the way it is; they do count those ballots just the way they are. If there's a second ballot, the latter ballot would control and I think everybody's in agreement on that," Hatch said.

"Even if certain voters are disenfranchised?" asked Justice Alan Page.

"I don't know how to read it in a way that somebody doesn't get disenfranchised. If we say nobody gets to vote, what about the people who voted for the Green Party for Mr. Coleman for others. Don't they have a right to vote?" Hatch said.

"As do the people who voted for...and that's the dilemma," Page said.

"I mean it's a tragedy what occurred on Friday for the Wellstone family; it's a tragedy that occurred for the entire state. But we do our best; we have to follow the law," Hatch said.

Several of the justices have political backgrounds including Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz who's a former legislator; and Alan Page who was first elected to the bench, not appointed.

Despite the ruling, there's no guarantee voters will get a new ballot in time to return it before polls close Tuesday.

The Senate race is between Republican Norm Coleman and former Vice President Walter Mondale, who stepped in as the Democratic candidate following the death of Senator Paul Wellstone.

More from MPR
  • MPR's Midmorning discusses the issue.
  • Campaign 2002