Filed: June 30, 2009
1. Appellants [Coleman] did not establish that, by requiring proof that statutory absentee voting standards were satisfied before counting a rejected absentee ballot, the trial court's decision constituted a post-election change in standards that violates substantive due process.
2. Appellants did not prove that either the trial court or local election officials violated the constitutional guarantee of equal protection.
3. The trial court did not abuse its discretion when it excluded additional evidence.
4. Inspection of ballots under Minn. Stat. § 209.06 (2008) is available only on a showing that the requesting party cannot properly be prepared for trial without an inspection. Because appellants made no such showing here, the trial court did not err in denying inspection.
5. The trial court did not err when it included in the final election tally the election day returns of a precinct in which some ballots were lost before the manual recount.
PER CURIAM. [Unanimous 5-0 decision.]
Appellants, incumbent Republican United States Senator Norm Coleman and Cullen Sheehan, filed a notice of election contest under Minn. Stat. § 209.021 (2008), challenging the State Canvassing Board's certification that Democratic-Farmer-Labor challenger Al Franken was entitled to receive a certificate of election as United States Senator following the November 4, 2008 general election. After a trial, the three-judge trial court we appointed to hear the election contest issued its findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order for judgment, concluding that Franken received 312 more legally cast votes than Coleman and that Franken was entitled to a certificate of election for the office of United States Senator. The question presented on appeal is whether the trial court erred in concluding that Al Franken received the most legally cast votes in the election for United States Senator. Because we conclude that appellants have not shown that the trial cour's findings of fact are clearly erroneous or that the court committed an error of law or abused its discretion, we affirm.
We turn first to the question of whether Coleman's right to substantive due process under the United States Constitution has been violated. Whether Coleman's right to substantive due process was violated is a question of law, which we review de novo. State v. Netland, 762 N.W.2d 202, 207 (Minn. 2009).
We conclude that our existing case law requires strict compliance by voters with the requirements for absentee voting. Thus, we reject Coleman's argument that only substantial compliance by voters is required. Having rejected this argument, we also conclude that the trial court's February 13 order requiring strict compliance with the statutory requirements for absentee voting was not a deviation from our well-established precedent.
We next examine Coleman's argument that the constitutional guarantee of equal protection was violated in this case.12 Coleman's equal protection argument is two-fold. First, he argues that the differing application and implementation by election officials of the statutory requirements for absentee voting violated equal protection. Essentially, Coleman contends that similarly situated absentee ballots were treated differently depending on the jurisdiction in which they were cast and that this disparate treatment violated equal protection. Second, Coleman contends that equal protection was violated when the trial court adhered to the statutory requirements for acceptance of absentee ballots, in contrast to the practices of local jurisdictions during the election.
The trial court found that election judges applied the election laws in a consistent and uniform manner. The court found that election jurisdictions adopted policies they deemed necessary to ensure that absentee voting procedures would be available to their residents, in accordance with statutory requirements, given the resources available to them. The court also found that differences in available resources, personnel, procedures, and technology necessarily affected the procedures used by local election officials reviewing absentee ballots. But the court found that Coleman did not prove that these differences were calculated to discriminate among absentee voters. Our review of the record convinces us that the trial court's findings are supported by the evidence and are not clearly erroneous. As a result, we conclude that Coleman did not prove his equal protection claim.
The trial court concluded that Bush is distinguishable in several important respects and, as a result, does not support Coleman's equal protection claim. We agree. In Bush, the Supreme Court specifically noted that it was not addressing the question of "whether local entities, in the exercise of their expertise, may develop different systems for implementing elections." 531 U.S. at 109. Variations in local practices for implementing absentee voting procedures are, at least in part, the question at issue here. As previously noted, the trial court here found that the disparities in application of the statutory standards on which Coleman relies are the product of local jurisdictions" use of different methods to ensure compliance with the same statutory standards; that jurisdictions adopted policies they deemed necessary to ensure that absentee voting procedures would be available to their residents, in accordance with statutory requirements, given the resources available to them; and that differences in available resources, personnel, procedures, and technology necessarily affected the procedures used by local election officials in reviewing absentee ballots. As we noted previously, Coleman has not demonstrated that these findings are clearly erroneous.
Coleman next contends that the trial court improperly excluded (1) evidence of absentee ballots accepted on election day and in the manual recount that would not satisfy the standards established by the trial court, and (2) evidence of disparities among jurisdictions in their application of the statutory standards governing absentee ballots. We review the trial court's evidentiary rulings for abuse of discretion. See Peterson v. BASF Corp., 711 N.W.2d 470, 482-83 (Minn. 2006).
In enacting section 204C.13, subd. 6, particularly in light of our interpretation of the same language in Bell, the legislature made a policy decision to limit challenges to an absentee ballot, once it is separated from its return envelope and deposited in the ballot box, to challenges based on the face of the ballot. We conclude that the trial court ruled correctly that Minnesota law provides no remedy for wrongly accepted absentee ballot return envelopes once those envelopes have been opened and the ballots inside deposited in the ballot box. Accordingly, we conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the evidence.
As we have explained, in order to prevail on his equal protection claim, Coleman was required to prove intentional or purposeful discrimination on the part of either local election officials or the trial court. But Coleman does not contend that the additional evidence he sought to introduce would have proven intentional or purposeful discrimination on the part of any election officials or the trial court. We therefore conclude that in excluding this evidence, the court did not abuse its discretion.
Coleman also claims that the trial court erred in denying his petition for inspection of ballots for certain precincts in which he alleges that double-counting of ballots occurred. The trial court concluded that Coleman had not met his burden to show that an inspection was needed to prepare for trial, noting Coleman's concession at the hearing on the petition that he would be able to prove his case without an inspection, by calling election judges as witnesses and by subpoenaing voter rolls and ballots. The court also concluded that inspections under Minn. Stat. § 209.06 (2008) are limited to the ballots themselves and do not include voter rolls or other election materials sought by Coleman. Finally, the court noted that the parties had already reviewed the ballots during the manual recount.
Coleman conceded at the hearing on the petition for inspection, and does not dispute here, that he could prove his claim of double-counting by subpoenaing the ballots and election materials and by subpoenaing witnesses to testify. This concession negates any claim that he made the required showing of necessity and any contention that he was prevented from proving his case by denial of the inspection. Coleman called no witnesses with direct knowledge of the handling of duplicate ballots in the relevant precincts, but he did introduce at trial voter rosters, envelopes from accepted absentee ballots, copies of ballots challenged during the manual recount, and machine tapes from the identified precincts in which he alleges double-counting of absentee ballots occurred. On appeal, Coleman has identified nothing additional that an inspection of ballots under section 209.06 would have produced.21 We therefore hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the petition for inspection.
Finally, Coleman contends that the trial court erred when it ruled that missing ballots from Minneapolis Ward 3, Precinct 1, were properly included in the State Canvassing Board's January 5, 2009 certification of legally cast votes. During the manual recount, election officials could locate only four of the five envelopes of ballots from Minneapolis Ward 3, Precinct 1. Voting machine tapes showed a total of 2,028 ballots cast and counted in the precinct on election day, but only 1,896 ballots from the precinct were available for the recount, a difference of 132 ballots. The State Canvassing Board determined that an envelope of ballots had been lost and, rather than certify only 1,896 votes in the recount, accepted the election day returns for that precinct.
Coleman articulates no compelling reason why that same principle should not apply here. The ballots are missing, but Coleman introduced no evidence of foul play or misconduct, and the election day precinct returns are available to give effect to those votes. We hold that the trial court did not err in ruling that the election day precinct returns for Minneapolis Ward 3, Precinct 1, were properly included in the tally of legally cast votes.
For all of the foregoing reasons, we affirm the decision of the trial court that Al Franken received the highest number of votes legally cast and is entitled under Minn. Stat. § 204C.40 (2008) to receive the certificate of election as United States Senator from the State of Minnesota.
Source: Supreme Court Order via MNCourts.gov [PDF]