Douglas County plays bit part in Senate trialDouglas County election official Vicki Doehling testified during the U.S. Senate election trial in St. Paul.
By: By Scott Wente, State Capitol Bureau, Alexandria Echo Press
Douglas County Elections Administrator Vicki Doehling recently joined the growing list of county officials called to testify in the U.S. Senate election trial in St. Paul.
After waiting for hours last Friday in the Minnesota Judicial Center, which houses the state's Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, Doehling took the witness stand and was questioned about one ballot that was rejected by Douglas County because the voter cast the absentee ballot in the wrong precinct.
"When I heard it was only one ballot they were questioning me about, I mean, how bad could that be?" Doehling said, talking about the experience during a telephone interview Monday. "I was on the stand for maybe 10, 15 minutes."
Douglas County Attorney Chris Karpan, who traveled with Doehling to St. Paul for the hearing, said afterward he wasn't all that surprised that county officials were subpoenaed, even for just one ballot.
He said the margin separating the two campaigns is so slim – Franken led by 225 votes entering the trial – that neither one is taking any chances.
The fact that Douglas County was called about only one ballot out of 20,012 cast, including 2,415 absentee ballots, is a credit great job the performed by county election staff, Karpan said.
"We’ve been through this election with a fine-tooth comb," he said, "and it's been almost flawless."
Norm Coleman’s campaign tried to demonstrate the single ballot in question was wrongly rejected because the error was caused by a mistake of the voter and of an election worker. An attorney for Coleman’s opponent, Al Franken, suggested only the voter was at fault and that the ballot was properly rejected.
Through their questioning of Doehling, the attorneys argued over whether it was the voter’s responsibility to update his voter registration information, including a change of address, or a Douglas County election official was partially to blame for the registration problem.
Doehling told a Franken attorney that it ultimately is the voter’s responsibility to maintain current voter registration information, but then was asked by a Coleman attorney whether the incident was a “shared mistake” by the voter and the election official, who failed to notice an address change.
“I would concede that,” she said.
Before she testified, Doehling said Douglas County election officials found no absentee ballots that they had wrongly rejected in the election. She said that was possible by limiting the number of people who handled the ballots.
“The more hands you have in a pot, the more chance of error you have,” Doehling said.
That was typical of issues raised through trial testimony the past four weeks.
Discussion about how specific ballots are handled is too detailed to intrigue casual political observers, according to Bemidji State University journalism instructor Louise Mengelkoch, who has been monitoring the proceeding.
Minnesota voters – and even politically engaged college students – have little interest in details of the prolonged U.S. Senate election trial, Mengelkoch said.
“I think they’re lost,” Mengelkoch said last Friday. “I don’t know anybody who follows it, because it’s infuriating.
“I’m fascinated by it just because it’s so excruciating,” Mengelkoch added
The professor said her students showed much more interest in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections than they have in their own state’s contentious Senate battle.
“They were more dramatic,” she said of the earlier elections. “The drama has almost been sucked out of this [race].”
The case started at a painfully slow pace, but has moved faster in recent days. The trial’s 20th day saw a flurry of legal requests from Coleman’s campaign amid continued testimony from local election officials about how they decided which absentee ballots to include in the November 4 election and the Senate recount.
Whether certain absentee ballots were wrongly rejected in the election tally is a key issue in Coleman’s lawsuit. He is challenging Al Franken’s 225-vote victory following the statewide recount of 2.9 million votes.
Coleman’s campaign called five county officials to the witness stand last Friday.
The local officials’ testimony was overshadowed by the campaigns’ maneuvering inside and outside the courtroom.
Coleman’s campaign continued to claim some ballots included in the election tally would be considered illegally cast under a recent ruling by the three-judge panel.
Echo Press staff reporter Mike Enright contributed to this report.