Democracy In Action
It seems that the election of Al Franken to the U.S. Senate is basically a fait accompli. This is a little embarrassing for America—Franken’s books had little in the way of serious political thought, and were poorly researched and unfair. I believe—and this is mere conjecture, and time may prove it unfair to Franken—that future generations will see the election of Al Franken as similar to the elections of Bella Abzurg or Dennis Kucinich (his first election)—as shameful, never to be repeated mistakes.
(What was Kucinich’s first election? Some people have forgotten, but his first prominent government job was as mayor of Cleveland, elected at the age of thirty-one. His performance was about as strong as you would expect, although he was slated for a mob hit, which was only lifted when the city fell into default).
But whether or not Franken is a competent Senator, his election is worrisome, and those worries arise from fears that are far more important than the quality of Franken’s political brain. Because the 2008 Minnesota Senate was a travesty, and should never happen again, anywhere, or at least not too many more times.
Franken will, eventually, become Minnesota’s junior Senator. Coleman will be the loser. But it is impossible to say with certainty which man deserves to win or lose. The vote counting in Minnesota was plagued with irregularities and mistakes. Franken will win—but it is impossible to say with any conviction that he was the candidate with the most votes.
After the initial count—which showed Coleman ahead—absentee ballots came flowing in, from unusual places. Some were found in poll workers cars, others were recounted or discounted because of mistakes made during the first count.
A recount began, and both sides started flying in lawyers to make sure that no legal stone was left unturned. Both sides started challenging every possible ballot (particularly absentee ballots, which have more rules attached to them), even if the voter’s intent was obvious. Some of these challenges were upheld, others were rejected; in the end, over twelve thousand absentee ballots were rejected, out of over two hundred eighty thousand cast.
By all accounts, Coleman’s team of lawyers did a very poor job—they were outhustled and outmaneuvered by Franken’s team. And the Coleman camp still maintains that different Minnesota counties apply the rules for absentee ballots inconsistently, and that Democrat counties tend to be slack, while Republican counties are more stringent.
Coleman’s biggest mistake was his campaign’s reaction to a Minnesota Supreme Court decision that held that previously rejected absentee ballots should be included in the final count, provided that both sides agreed. Coleman allowed 933 ballots to be counted—without first getting a guarantee of uniform treatment of all absentee ballots. The 933 ballots increased Franken’s lead, and Coleman was unable to get enough addition absentee ballots counted to take the lead. Coleman was plagued by poor legal advice throughout the legal battle.
Franken won the election fair and square—the recount process was even-handed, and his lawyers were much better. He did not steal the election. But nobody, even Franken, could say with any degree of certainty that he got the largest number of legitimate votes. Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t. But he was victorious mostly due to the skill and experience of his lawyers.
That sort of thing can be fatal for a democracy. If voters cannot trust that their votes will be counted, they lose confidence in the democratic system. And if that confidence is lost, democracy cannot work. This is hardly the first time this has happened—George W. Bush won Florida in 2000 in much the same way that Franken won Minnesota—but it should be the last. If elections are decided by lawyers, and not votes, then democracy is meaningless.