Minnesota Paper Jam

The Wall Street Journal gets its facts wrong

Kudos to Nate Silver at Fivethirtyeight for pointing out the flaws in The Wall Street Journal’s editorial about the Al Franken-Norm Coleman vote recount in Minnesota.

The WSJ argues that partisan forces are steering the recount to Franken’s advantage:

Thanks to the machinations of Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and a meek state Canvassing Board, Mr. Franken may emerge as an illegitimate victor.

Mr. Franken started the recount 215 votes behind Senator Coleman, but he now claims a 225-vote lead and suddenly the man who was insisting on “counting every vote” wants to shut the process down. He’s getting help from Mr. Ritchie and his four fellow Canvassing Board members, who have delivered inconsistent rulings and are ignoring glaring problems with the tallies.

The WSJ alleges that the vote ought not be certified because of several problems including double-counting of damaged ballots, ignored absentee ballots, and differing vote counts.

But numbers whiz kid Nate Silver takes the apart the story paragraph by paragraph and backs it up with some research evidence:

The Canvassing Board indeed determined that it lacked the jurisidiction to handle duplicate ballots, telling Coleman that he had to go to court. Which he did. And the court threw the case out because Coleman didn’t have any evidence.

In other cases, the board has been flagrantly inconsistent. Last month, Mr. Franken’s campaign charged that one Hennepin County (Minneapolis) precinct had “lost” 133 votes, since the hand recount showed fewer ballots than machine votes recorded on Election Night. Though there is no proof to this missing vote charge – officials may have accidentally run the ballots through the machine twice on Election Night – the Canvassing Board chose to go with the Election Night total, rather than the actual number of ballots in the recount. That decision gave Mr. Franken a gain of 46 votes.

Actually, there is some proof: the number of votes identified during the recount fell 134 short of the number of voters who signed in on election night in this precinct.

Meanwhile, a Ramsey County precinct ended up with 177 more ballots than there were recorded votes on Election Night. In that case, the board decided to go with the extra ballots, rather than the Election Night total, even though the county is now showing more ballots than voters in the precinct. This gave Mr. Franken a net gain of 37 votes, which means he’s benefited both ways from the board’s inconsistency.

The decisions are not inconsistent if the Canvassing Board’s objective is to count every single vote.

And here again the Journal goes on about the county “showing more ballots than voters in the precinct.” If there is evidence of this, it would be news not just to me but, also, to the Coleman campaign.

And then there are the absentee ballots. The Franken campaign initially howled that some absentee votes had been erroneously rejected by local officials. Counties were supposed to review their absentees and create a list of those they believed were mistakenly rejected. Many Franken-leaning counties did so, submitting 1,350 ballots to include in the results. But many Coleman-leaning counties have yet to complete a re-examination. Despite this lack of uniformity, and though the state Supreme Court has yet to rule on a Coleman request to standardize this absentee review, Mr. Ritchie’s office nonetheless plowed through the incomplete pile of 1,350 absentees this weekend, padding Mr. Franken’s edge by a further 176 votes.

This is just blatantly false. All counties, red and blue alike, were instructed by the Supreme Court to identify any wrongly-rejected absentee ballots, and all of them did. In certain counties, Coleman claims to have identified additional wrongly-rejected absentee ballots above and beyond the ones that county officials identified — but these were counties that nevertheless complied with the court’s order and turned in their lists of ballots to the state.

Despite Silver’s savvy analysis, the WSJ’s point of view is getting plenty of traction around the Web. It’s not entirely surprising that the conservative WSJ editorial board would support Coleman, but it’s a shame that others are willing to repeat Coleman’s talking points without subjecting them to closer scrutiny.

On the Web, half-truths can quickly become cemented as facts. It’s heartening that Silver’s doing good stuff to debunk the WSJ; it would be good to see his mopping up get as much traction as the mess in the first place.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.