By Mark Fischenich
The Free Press
LE CENTER — The first day of a three-day recount for the state Senate District 20 seat moved in the direction Republican Mike Dudley needed Wednesday, but not by nearly enough.
More than 17,000 votes were counted a second time in the portion of Rice County included in Senate District 20, which also includes most of Le Sueur County and southern Scott County.
Dudley, a former FBI agent from New Prague, received two more votes in the second tally and former Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, lost one. But Dahle’s 78-vote winning margin on Election Day leaves him with plenty of leeway if the recounts in Le Sueur County today and Scott County on Friday have similarly tiny shifts in the totals.
The Rice County votes also represent about 40 percent of the ballots cast in District 20, so Dudley’s opportunity to make inroads in Dahle’s lead was reduced by more than a third even with two more counties to go. In Le Sueur County, 11,376 votes were cast. And in Scott County, slightly more than 12,500 ballots will be recounted.
Rice County Auditor/Treasurer Fran Windschitl said the ruling of elections officials was challenged on just a single ballot during Wednesday’s recount, a marked contrast to the hundreds of challenges that occurred on some days in some counties during recounts of close races for U.S. Senate and governor in 2008 and 2010.
“Very reasonable,” Windschitl said of the representatives of the Dahle and Dudley campaigns. “They weren’t challenging frivolously.”
In the previous statewide recounts, the candidates’ representatives at times seemed to be challenging ballots even when it was abundantly clear who the voter had voted for — saying a vote should be discarded because there was a random ink mark on a ballot or because a voter strayed outside the lines when filling in an oval.
The Dahle challenge came on a ballot where the voter marked the ovals with an X on part of the ballot, including on the oval next to Dudley’s name, before coloring in the ovals (as ballot instructions suggest) on the remaining races.
Rice County election officials hand-counted the ballots, which are read by machines on Election Day, at six tables and finished the more than 17,000 ballots in less than six hours. Representatives of both campaigns told Windschitl they were very satisfied with how the recount was conducted.
“It went really, really well,” she said.
The recount resumes at 8:30 a.m. today at the Le Sueur County Courthouse in Le Center, and the public is welcome to observe.