By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
LE CENTER — A recount of more than 41,000 ballots cast in Minnesota Senate District 20, which includes most of Le Sueur County, will begin Wednesday and is expected to conclude by Friday afternoon.
At stake is former state Sen. Kevin Dahle’s return to the Legislature two years after losing by fewer than 900 votes in his first re-election bid and three weeks after winning an even slimmer victory in his comeback attempt.
A Northfield Democrat and Northfield High School social studies teacher, Dahle received 78 more votes than Mike Dudley, a New Prague Republican and retired FBI agent, among 41,231 ballots counted on Election Day. The numbers translate to 50.03 percent for Dahle to 49.84 percent for Dudley, well within the threshold for an automatic recount under state election law — less than one-half of 1 percent.
Dudley said he’s not optimistic about finding enough counting errors to change the result.
“Based on past experience (with Minnesota recounts), it’s not a high probability,” he said.
But he decided against conceding the race and waiving his right to a recount.
“It was just too close to not let it play out,” he said.
Dudley said he considered two factors in deciding whether to waive the recount. First was the support of the 20,550 residents of Le Sueur, Rice and Scott counties who voted for him in a year when most Republican candidates were getting trounced as Minnesota strongly supported Democrats up and down the ballot.
Many of those supporters encouraged him to go forward with the recount, he said.
Secondly, he wanted to make sure the recount wouldn’t be too costly and called the Secretary of State’s Office for data on the expense of previous recounts — something Minnesota has plenty of experience with following statewide recounts in 2008 (the Al Franken-Norm Coleman U.S. Senate race) and 2010 (the Mark Dayton-Tom Emmer contest for governor).
Dudley said he was told past recounts worked out to about 3 cents per ballot.
“A little over $1,200,” he said of the cost of counting the more than 41,000 ballots cast in his race. “So I didn’t feel it was an undue burden on the taxpayers.”
The actual cost, at 3 cents a ballot, would be about $100 more than that because county elections workers will have to count all the ballots cast within the boundaries of Senate District 20 — including those where the voter didn’t bother to vote on the state Senate race.
In Le Sueur County, about 8 percent of voters cast a ballot with a vote marked on the presidential race but not on the state Senate races. If the drop-off was similar in the other counties, more than 44,000 ballots will be checked this week.
The process starts Wednesday in Rice County, where more than 17,000 votes were cast in the District 20 race and where Dahle dominated with 60 percent of the vote in his home county. Then comes Le Sueur County on Thursday, where Dudley won just over 53 percent of the 11,376 votes. The recount concludes on Friday in Dudley’s home county of Scott, where he won 60 percent of the more than 12,500 ballots cast in the southern part of the county that is part of District 20.
The recount is open to the public, although observers will be kept behind rope lines so they can’t touch the ballots, said Carol Blaschko, elections administrator for Le Sueur County. Two counting tables will be set up in the commissioners room of the courthouse in Le Center, the sealed ballots will be brought in from a vault, and each precinct will be counted ballot by ballot.
Representatives of both candidates will be at each table and can challenge any ballot that they believe is being counted wrongly, and that ballot will be set aside, Blaschko said. The campaign challenging the ballot will have to explain in writing why they believe it shouldn’t be counted or should be counted for a candidate other than the one elections officials intended to give the vote to.
Challenged ballots will go to the State Canvassing Board — made up of Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, two state Supreme Court justices and two district court judges — for a final determination.
“I’m guessing it will probably take us the majority of the day,” Blaschko said.