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The recount process to determine the winner of the US Senate race in Minnesota begins. Incumbent Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) has a narrow lead over challenger Al Franken (D-MN), who requested the recount as permitted in Minnesota law when the results of a race are so close. The state Canvassing Board met on November 18 to certify the unofficial results, thus allowing the recounts to begin at almost 100 county and city election offices throughout the state. The procedure entails an appointed recount auditor examining each ballot by hand to determine the voter’s intent, monitored by representatives from each candidate’s campaign. Auditors will sort each ballot into the appropriate stacks. According to the 2008 Recount Guide issued by Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, “a ballot or vote must not be rejected for a technicality if it is possible to decide what the voter intended, even though the voter may have made a mistake or the ballot is damaged.” Ballots that are in dispute will be sent to the five-member Canvassing Board, which includes Ritchie, two state Supreme Court justices, and two Ramsey County district court judges, who will make final decisions as to the validity of disputed ballots. KARE-TV has reported that as many as 6,000 ballots may have been missed by the optical-scan machines because of improper markings. Ramsey County elections head Joe Mansky says that around 2 percent of ballots are mismarked in each election. If the intention of the voter is clear, he says, those votes will be counted. Law professor David Schultz says the process reminds the observer of the election debacle in Florida during the 2000 presidential election (see 9:54 p.m. December 12, 2000), and notes that Minnesota has a long tradition of not penalizing voters for failing to fill out ballots properly if their intent can be determined. (Duchschere, Brown, and Louwagie 11/6/2008) The Canvassing Board says it will not make a decision just yet on whether to count disputed absentee ballots. Minnesota Supreme Court Justice G. Barry Anderson, one of the five members of the board, says of the decision to table the absentee ballot issue: “I reference particularly the blizzard of paperwork that we have seen and whether or not there might be some additional time necessary to consider all of it. Is there anything about an additional period of time that will impact the rights of the parties to make election challenges or take other steps under the law?” Franken wants the absentee ballots in dispute to be counted; Franken’s lawyer David Lillehaug tells the board: “These people are real people who did everything right. They wanted to participate in our democracy. They wanted to vote and have their vote counted. Can’t we all agree that they shouldn’t have to start a lawsuit, or have somebody else start a lawsuit before their votes are counted?” Coleman’s attorney Fritz Knaak calls Lillehaug’s arguments “bothersome,” and says the board should not consider and count rejected absentee ballots. (Scheck 11/18/2008)
The Target Corporation, owner of Target department stores, donates $150,000 to a fund with close ties to the campaign of Tom Emmer (R-MN), the GOP’s presumptive nominee for Minnesota’s governor, through its federal PAC TargetCitizens. The donation is $100,000 in cash and $50,000 in “brand consulting.” Another Minnesota-based retail chain, Best Buy Co., gives $100,000 to the group MN Forward, which describes itself as “nonpartisan” but only donates money to Emmer. The money is to be used primarily for ads supporting Emmer, a state legislator. The donations are allowable under the controversial Citizens United ruling that allows corporations to give unrestricted amounts to political organizations (see January 21, 2010). Emmer is a controversial candidate with a record of fiery opposition to gay rights and other stances not popular with moderate and liberal voters, and some are talking about organizing a boycott of Target and Best Buy. Target is the primary focus of the criticism, in part because it has promoted itself as a progressive alternative to corporate retailers such as Wal-Mart, according to an official with progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org. A Target spokesperson, Lena Michaud, says the company supports causes and candidates “based strictly on issues that affect our retail and business objectives.” TargetCitizens, according to Michaud, donates money to both Democratic and Republican candidates. Though Michaud says Target spreads its donations equally between candidates of the two parties, the $150,000 donation exceeds the amount TargetCitizens has donated in all other federal campaigns this year; Target executives have donated primarily to Republicans as well. Emmer, aside from his opposition to gay rights, favors a strict stance on immigration and has advocated slashing the wages of food service workers, whom he claims often make six-figure incomes when their tips are counted. He also advocates the nullification of some portions of the US Constitution, and wants to nullify the recent health care reform legislative package. In contrast, Target has cultivated a moderate image in Minnesota, making public donations to schools, food shelves, and the annual Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival. Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel, a heavy Republican donor, says his company’s commitment to gay rights is “unwavering.” MN Forward director Brian McClung, who formerly served as spokesman for retiring Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), says: “We believe that everybody has the right to express their opinions and we’re going to run a fair and factual campaign. Our first ad is a positive ad talking about a candidate’s vision for creating jobs.” (Lohn 7/27/2010; Terkel 7/27/2010; Yang and Eggen 8/19/2010) Paul Finkelstein, CEO of Regis Corporation, which has also donated to MN Forward, explains that his company, like Target and Best Buy, donates based on economic concerns. “From a social perspective, I don’t agree with many of his platforms,” Finkelstein says. “My concern, frankly, is jobs. We have to have a tax policy that enables us to be able to create jobs.” Emmer wants to institute massive tax cuts, particularly for business owners and the wealthy, if he is elected as governor. Best Buy spokeswoman Susan Busch Nehring says of the controversy, “We’ve learned from this, and we will thoughtfully review the process we use to make political contributions, to avoid any future confusion.” (Kleefeld 7/30/2010; Yang and Eggen 8/19/2010)
Backlash - Local gay-rights organization Twin Cities Pride says it is “reviewing its partnership with Target” in light of the Emmer donations, while another gay-rights organization, OutFront Minnesota, says in a statement: “Emmer stands alone among candidates for governor in opposing equality for GLBT Minnesotans. Target should not stand with him.” OutFront Minnesota director Monica Meyer says, “This is inconsistent with their values to support the only candidate for governor who stands up for discrimination and divisiveness in Minnesota.” Former Democratic campaign worker Laura Hedlund pickets outside a Minnesota Target store, and tells a reporter, “I think Target is making a huge mistake” in donating money to support Emmer. A YouTube video posted by Minnesota citizen and former Target consumer Randi Reitan goes “viral”; in the video, Reitan returns $226 worth of items to a Target store and cuts up her Target credit card, explaining that she wants equality for her gay son, which Emmer, and by extension Target, does not support. Political science professor David Schultz says he is surprised Target would make such a controversial announcement of support: “I thought they would have sat this one out because they are so smart in terms of marketing. Target has had the warm fuzzies with progressives for years.… Now they risk alienating half the state’s population.” Emmer himself complains that his right to freedom of speech is being challenged by the protests against Target, and accuses protesters of demonstrating against him for personal reasons, saying: “The sad part to me is, I thought we were supposed to be able to exercise our rights of free speech. We’re supposed to celebrate the fact that we have different perspectives. And it doesn’t seem like that’s what this is about. This seems to be more personal and we’ve got to get over that.” (Lohn 7/27/2010; Kleefeld 7/30/2010) MN Forward continues to garner significant corporate donations even after the Target backlash. (Scheck 8/5/2010; Caldwell 8/6/2010)
Apology - Days later, Steinhafel issues a public apology for the donation, in an apparent effort to ward off planned boycotts by gay-rights and Democratic groups. Steinhafel writes a letter to Target employees that is made public, claiming that the donation was merely to support economic growth and job creation. He acknowledges that the contribution affected many employees in ways he did not anticipate and says: “[F]or that I am deeply sorry.… The diversity of our team is an important aspect of our culture and our success, and we did not mean to disappoint you, our team or our valued guests.” Michaud says the company will do what she calls a strategic review of political donations, and plans to lead a discussion on improving gay rights in the workplace. “Our commitment right now is in letting people know that we’ve heard their feedback and we’re really sorry that we’ve let them down,” Michaud says. “We want to continue doing the many things that Target has done as a company to foster our inclusive corporate culture and then look at ways of doing things better in the future.” Meyer says she is glad to hear Steinhafel’s apology, but her group intends to wait and see if Target fulfills its promise to be supportive of gay rights: “People are really appreciating them reiterating that kind of support but they want to make sure that their consumer dollars aren’t going to fund candidates who do the exact opposite of what Target says it wants to promote in society.” Soon after Steinhafel’s apology, Human Rights Campaign, a human rights organization that supports gay rights, says it spoke with Target about contributing $150,000 to a candidate who does support gay rights, but, the organization says, those talks have broken down. Allison Hayward of the Center for Competitive Politics says corporations should view the Target controversy as a cautionary tale. “This is sort of an object lesson for the next time a Sears or a Wal-Mart thinks about getting involved in some political expenditures,” she says. “Large corporations are not generally interested in alienating customers.” (Scheck 8/5/2010; Yang and Eggen 8/19/2010)
Donations to Anti-Gay Candidates Continue - Federal Election Commission (FEC) records released in December 2010 will show that Target continues to donate to anti-gay candidates. (Shakir 12/24/2010)
Policy Change - In February 2011, Target Corporation issues a new policy to tighten oversight and restrict how the firm’s funds are used for political purposes. Tim Smith of Walden Asset Management, one of the companies that filed a shareholder resolution criticizing the donation, says: “This is definitely a trend. More and more companies are stepping up and being transparent about their political spending.” Target still refuses to disclose how much money it donates to trade associations, which are often some of the largest political campaign donors. Target now has a committee tasked with guiding “the decision-making process regarding financial support of political activities,” according to a policy document. (Geiger and Levey 2/19/2011)
The conservative activist group Minnesota Majority issues a report claiming that Senator Al Franken (D-MN) won the hotly contested recount for the Minnesota seat (see June 30, 2009) because of votes cast by felons voting illegally in Minneapolis-St. Paul. According to the report, at least 341 convicted felons who had lost the right to vote cast their votes for Franken in the 2008 race (see November 4-5, 2008). Franken was found to have won the race by 312 votes. If the votes allegedly cast illegally were deducted from the final vote tally, Franken’s opponent Norm Coleman (R-MN) would be the winner, the report says. Minnesota Majority makes its claim after studying publicly available conviction lists and voting records. The group claims that attempts to secure an investigation by state and federal authorities have been “stonewalled.” Minnesota Majority executive director Dan McGrath says: “We aren’t trying to change the result of the last election. That legally can’t be done. We are just trying to make sure the integrity of the next election isn’t compromised.” McGrath complains that prosecutors in Ramsey and Hennepin Counties have ignored their findings, including a list of hundreds of allegedly illegal voters from those counties. A spokesman for the county attorney’s offices says the group’s information is “just plain wrong” and full of errors. McGrath says the group went back and double-checked its records after being told that its findings were wrong. He says: “What we did this time is irrefutable. We took the voting lists and matched them with conviction lists and then went back to the records and found the roster lists, where voters sign in before walking to the voting booth, and matched them by hand. The only way we can be wrong is if someone with the same first, middle, and last names, same year of birth as the felon, and living in the same community, has voted. And that isn’t very likely.”
County Prosecutors: Group's Claims Largely Erroneous - Phil Carruthers, Ramsey County’s lead prosecutor, says his office is taking the allegations seriously and praises the group for doing “a good job in [its] review.” But, Carruthers notes, the group lacks access to nonpublic information, and that information shows that almost all of the names on the list are of eligible voters. For example, Carruthers says, “public records might show a felon was given 10 years probation, but internal records the county attorney has might show that the probation period was cut to five and the felon was eligible to vote.” Carruthers says Ramsey County is filing charges against 28 people for illegally voting, with more charges possible. McGrath says: “Prosecutors have to act more swiftly in prosecuting cases from the 2008 election to deter fraud in the future, and the state has to make sure that existing system, that flags convicted felons so voting officials can challenge them at the ballot, is effective. In 90 percent of the cases we looked at, the felons weren’t flagged. If the state had done that, things might be very different today.” (Barnes 7/12/2010)
Governor Weighs In, Implying Franken Won Illegally - Two days after the allegations surface in the press, Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN) says the organization may have found “credible evidence” of voter fraud. On Fox News, Pawlenty says of the allegedly illegal votes: “I suspect they favored Al Franken. I don’t know that. But if that turned out to be true they may have flipped that election in a very close election.” Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund has stated flatly on Fox that “hundreds of felons” gave Franken the victory. But Carruthers tells a reporter, “Overwhelmingly, their statistics were not accurate.” Deputy Hennepin County Attorney Pat Diamond adds: “It’s produced a lot of smoke. But at the end of the day, I don’t know if it’s going to produce a lot of fire.” Carruthers says that the list of 480 suspected felons was obviously wrong from the outset, and 270 were removed upon a cursory review. Many other cases were examples of mistaken identity, or the list not taking into account felons who had their right to vote restored. The 28 cases flagged by Carruthers for potential prosecution had already been identified before he received Minnesota Majority’s list, he says. Diamond says much the same of the list of alleged illegal voters in Hennepin County.
Allegations Being Made for Political Purposes? - Local reporter John Croman notes that the allegations are being used by conservatives to push for restrictive voter ID laws. He writes: “Valid ID is needed to register, but not to vote. And yet both of the prosecutors [Carruthers and Diamond] pointed out there’s nothing to keep a felon from using legal ID to vote illegally.” While Minnesota Majority is blaming Secretary of State Mark Ritchie (D-MN) for the alleged felon voting, Diamond says Ritchie has worked diligently to make the state’s voting rolls more accurate and current. “He’s gotten the system into this century, so it’s actually much easier to prevent felons from voting now,” Diamond says. “I’m going to trial in August with two cases of felons who voted, that were flagged by election workers.” Law professor David Schultz says Pawlenty’s response is surprising: “One, it makes an assumption that it’s been proven that these felons have voted illegally, which isn’t the case. And, two, it makes the assumption that these felons voted overwhelmingly in favor of Franken.” Schultz says he believes Pawlenty is posturing for his upcoming presidential bid: “There’s a certain segment of the population, people who believe Democrats can’t win unless felons and immigrants vote illegally. He’s trying to appeal to that group to further his presidential campaign.” But if that is the case, Schultz says, Pawlenty is casting aspersions on the integrity of Minnesota’s election system for political gain. (Minneapolis Star-Tribune 7/14/2010; Croman 7/15/2010)
Months Later, Six Charges Filed - In October 2010, six felons in Hennepin County will be charged with voting illegally (see October 21, 2010).
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