The right-wing media has been going ape over a study from Minnesota Majority, a conservative group in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, claiming that hundreds of felons illegally voted in the disputed 2008 Senate race that ultimately saw comedian and Democratic activist Al Franken defeat incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman by a mere 312 votes out of 2.9 million. But is there any validity to it? Nope.
Fox News — an outlet that has a long-running bad relationship with Franken — claims: “The final recount vote in the race, determined six months after Election Day, showed Franken beat Coleman by 312 votes — fewer votes than the number of felons whose illegal ballots were counted, according to Minnesota Majority’s newly released study, which matched publicly available conviction lists with voting records.”
But were there really so many illegal ballots? And did they all go for Al Franken? As TPM’s in-house expert on that roller-coaster of an election, recount and litigation, allow me to walk you through all the problems with this new claim — plus the small kernel of truth that lies within.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a potential Republican candidate for president in 2012, fielded a very loaded question on Fox News on Wednesday, from host Brian Kilmeade, asking Pawlenty to “weigh in on the controversy with felons voting for Al Franken.” Check out the 3:50 mark here:
“There’s a group here in Minnesota that’s investigated that,” said Pawlenty. “They seem to have found credible evidence that many felons who are not supposed to be voting actually voted in the Franken-Coleman election. I suspect they favored Al Franken. I don’t know that. But if that turned out to be true, they may have flipped the election. In a very close election, there were only few-hundred vote difference, as you know.”
And the Star Tribune reported on Coleman’s reaction:
Coleman said Wednesday that he is “not looking back.” But he also termed Franken an “accidental senator,” who benefited from court rulings that overlooked an array of alleged voting irregularities.
“There’s always going to be a cloud of doubt that hovers over this election, and this thickens the cloud,” Coleman said.
As it turns out, though, Minnesota Majority’s study has had its share of sloppiness and false assumptions. As the Twin Cities NBC affiliate noted, it’s not even proven that hundreds of felons illegally voted at all — in some cases there were felons who could legally vote in Minnesota, having had their rights restored, and in other cases Minnesota Majority submitted the names of the wrong people:
In reality, that has not been proven. And the actual number of felons who voted illegally will likely be much lower based on reviews from prosecutors who received Minnesota Majority’s lists in the form of spread sheets in February.
“We received about 480 names from Minnesota Majority,” Ramsey County’s lead prosecutor Phil Carruthers told KARE Wednesday, “About 270 were clearly inaccurate and were rejected right from the get-go.”
He said a quick review revealed the names and birthdates didn’t match, or that the felons in question were no longer barred from voting.
In addition, instances of individual felons voting is different from any organized fraud. As Franken’s former attorney Marc Elias told The Hill: “Sen. Coleman was represented by some of the best lawyers there are in the country. At the end of that process, the lead lawyer for Sen. Coleman told the state Supreme Court that there was no evidence of persistent fraud in the election.”
Furthermore, the report runs up against a pesky obstacle that in this country dates back to the late 19th century, called the secret ballot. Even if it were proven that hundreds of illegal votes were cast, it can’t ever be proven who those people voted for. Right-wing media outlets have simply been assuming that all the felons voted for Franken. In fact, there was one solid case in January 2009 of a felon who pled guilty to illegally voting — and he said he voted for Coleman, though his word is obviously less than 100% credible. But in any case, the point stands: It can’t be proven who any one of these people would have voted for, or what any spread might have been, much less that they would have all voted for one candidate out of several who were on the ballot.
If the point here is to cast doubt on Franken’s election, here’s the funny truth of it all: Anybody who was watching that election, or any similar super-close election, already knows that there exists a certain level of reasonable doubt about the whole thing. In an election that close, there will always be a margin of error that is wider than the margin of victory — as a top county election official openly admitted at the trial.
Of course, this would also mean that this very same doubt would have clouded any win for Coleman, too. And it should also be noted that a similar circumstance was present in 2000, when George W. Bush officially won the state of Florida over Al Gore by a margin of 537 votes out of nearly six million — a smaller percentage difference than Franken’s final win in Minnesota — amidst allegations of vote suppression and faulty ballots. And while the true outcome of that election remains a genuine mystery, too, folks on the right never seem to be at all concerned about or to even acknowledge that particular conundrum.