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Douglas County election officials noticed a big error when they met last week to go over canvasing results ahead of the recount between Rep. Mary Franson and Democrat Bob Cunniff. Some voters -- 35 in all -- were handed the wrong ballot at a Alexandria polling place that split two precincts.

Franson-Cunniff recount complicated by Douglas Co. balloting error

Rep. Mary Franson (Staff photo: Peter Bartz Gallagher)

There’s a new wrinkle in the razor-thin legislative race between incumbent Republican Rep. Mary Franson and Democrat Bob Cunniff, in which Franson won by a single vote.

Douglas County election officials noticed a big error when they met last week to go over canvasing results ahead of the recount, which is required by state law if the margin between the candidates is less than half of 1 percent. Some voters — 32 in all — were handed the wrong ballot at two Alexandria polling places that were split between several precincts.

In other words, about 32 of the people who voted in the Franson-Cunniff House District 8B were supposed to vote in the neighboring 12B House race between Paul Anderson and DFLer Rick Rosenfield. Another  polling place had three more ballots submitted than there were signatures on the voting roster, bringing the total tally of votes in question up to 35, said Douglas County auditor treasurer Charlene Rosenow.

Relevant state law call for all of those ballots to be simply tossed out at random. “If there is…an excess of properly marked ballots, the election judges shall replace them in the box, and one election judge, without looking, shall withdraw from the box a number of ballots equal to the excess,” reads state statute 204C.20. “The withdrawn ballots shall not be counted but shall be preserved.”

Franson has asked that the matter be heard before a judge. A hearing was set for Monday afternoon, but Judge Ann Carrot immediately recused herself from the proceedings because her husband is a Cunniff supporter.  A new hearing could be set soon as Tuesday.

Reid LeBeau, Franson’s attorney, says the hearing is simply a procedural one that must happen before the county can legally take the next step. Prior to Franson’s call to have a hearing in court, LeBeau said, county officials planned to move ahead and pull the 35 ballots on their own.

“The county canvassing board doesn’t have the authority to correct the error on its own,” LeBeau said. “One of the candidates has to go before the court to say, ‘Yes, there was an error and you should go fix it.’”

The recount is slated to start on Nov. 28 and is expected to take several days. It’s unclear how this will affect the plans of state canvassing board, which is scheduled to meet to certify 2012 election results on November 27.

Races with such a close margin are not unheard of in the history of Minnesota legislative elections, but they’re rare. The last legislative candidate to hold their seat by a single vote was in the 1860s. The closest modern election was in 1972, when Rep. Bob McFarlin initially won his race by only two votes. After a recount, his lead was widened to 21 votes. There have been other close legislative races as recently 2010, when then GOP candidate King Banaian beat his DFL opponent by only 13 votes after ballots had been re-tallied.

Looking only at partisan indices, the House District 8B race should not have been so close — the district leans Republican by anywhere from 10 to 15 points. But Franson has drawn a considerable amount of ire from the left since entering office two years ago, starting with comments she made in a legislative video update comparing welfare recipients to animals. The comments went viral not once but twice after Franson repeated the welfare comment at a campaign rally.

The Franson-Cunniff race will not tip the balance of power in St. Paul — Democrats in the House hold a comfortable 73-61 majority pending the recount.

- This was first reported by staff writer Maggi McDermott in PIM Confidential

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