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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Nice Guy Finishes First In MN Senate Saga

This week has brought the long-delayed resolution of the 2008 U.S. Senate contest in Minnesota to a near-end, with a special three-judge panel appointed by the state Supreme Court rejecting Norm Coleman’s petition to include additional absentee ballots and paving the way for Al Franken to finally assume the seat.
Coleman will immediately appeal the decision to the state Supremes, but nobody much seems to think they are likely to overrule the special panel they created to resolve the dispute. And there’s also been talk that Coleman might follow up an exhaustion of his state remedies by going into federal court and asking for a Bush v. Gore-style intervention on federal constitutional grounds. But aside from the unique this-isn’t-precedent principle embedded in Bush v. Gore, the real obstacle to use of this avenue is the vast difference between the rational recount and dispute-resolution process used by Minnesota, and the crazy-quilt chaos of Florida in 2000.
And so, as Norm Coleman’s Senate career almost certainly expires, with it, too, should expire one of the “lessons of 2000” so often drawn from that horrific experience: that the side exhibiting the most aggressive tactics always wins election-result disputes.
It’s an article of faith among many progressives that Gore and Lieberman lost the election in 2000 well before the U.S. Supreme Court intervened, by exhibiting a naive respect for the rule of law while the Bushies laughed at them contemptuously and blew their doors off in manipulating the process by any means necessary. That’s certainly the impression left by the much-watched HBO movie Recount, where an effete and pompous Warren Christopher, who worried about New York Times editorials and the judgment of history, was decisively outflanked from the beginning by the charmingly vicious Jim Baker. Indeed, the idea that Democrats handed Bush the presidency through a weak and supercilious concern for fair play provided a lot of the impetus (according to some accounts) for the whole “netroots” phenomenon of the ensuing years.
As Josh Marshall notes today via a reader email, Al Franken has been the quieter, more rules-observing contestant in the Minnesota dispute. And that seems to have paid off politically: according to a new poll, 63% of Minnesotans now want Coleman to concede. This is important because it places pressure on MN Gov. Tim Pawlenty to certify Frankel as a senator if Coleman loses his state appeal, without waiting to see what happens in a possible federal suit.
My point here is not to relitigate the argument over Al Gore’s tactics in 2000, though my personal opinion is that the key mistake was the failure to push for a statewide recount from the get-go: it’s that going forward the best way to prevent the recurrence of the 2000 nightmare was and remains a push for election reforms at the state and national levels that create more Minnesotas and fewer Floridas. Something that often got lost in the recriminations over Florida in 2000 is that Gore would have won without any recount whatsoever had the Florida election machinery under Katherine Harris not been allowed to play havoc with voter rolls and election sites before any vote was cast. Barack Obama’s decisive victory last year has probably reduced the already-low interest level of many Democratic elected officials in election reform. They should compare Florida 2000 with Minnesota 2008, and rethink their indifference about how we hold elections in this country.

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