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Thief River Falls election comes down to one contested ballot

THIEF RIVER FALLS—The recount for a Thief River Falls Council seat still shows the candidates tied, but the challenger could win if a canvassing board determines one vote was meant for him.

A recount held Tuesday for the Ward 4 seat revealed council member Jerald Brown and newcomer Justen Lee each received 301 votes, the same as the official results taken after the general election, City Finance Director Angie Philipp said. The tie would have meant Brown would have been re-elected to his seat since he won a coin toss that was meant to decide the election last week, but Lee is contesting one ballot was intended as a vote for him.

Philipp did not specify why the ballot wasn't considered a valid vote for Lee other than to say the election machine did not detect the marking.

Brown, who was present for the recount with Lee and other election officials, told the Herald the ballot Lee is contesting is an undervote, meaning the person who cast the ballot did not vote in the Ward 4 race. He described the mark Lee contested as being the "size of a pinhead" near the edge of the circle next to Lee's name.

Brown said the other circles on the ballot were filled completely, adding he doesn't think the ballot should count for Lee.

"I'm not buying this one," he said.

If a canvassing board, which will meet Dec. 6, decides the ballot counts in Lee's favor, it would give him the victory by one vote. If the ballot is determined to be invalid, Brown will be named the winner.

The canvassing board will be made up of City Council members, Philipp said.

Races in Thief River Falls have come close, with Brown first winning his seat in 2012 by one vote. A tie is a rarity.

After the coin toss, which can be used to determine an election tie in Minnesota, Lee asked for a recount.

Because the recount showed the same result as the first set of official results, the winner of the coin toss—Brown—typically would win the election.

But Lee argues the election machine did not detect a marking on a ballot he believes was meant for him, and he is contesting the ballot as voter intent, Philipp said.

Lee did not immediately return a message left by the Herald for comment.

Minnesota law explains a technical error cannot make a ballot invalid if voter intent can be proven. There are several subdivisions that can cover a marking that was meant for a candidate. A vote will be counted if:

• A mark is out of its proper place but so near a name it can be seen that mark was intended for that candidate.

• A voter uniformly uses a mark that clearly indicates an intent to mark a name that is not the standard mark anywhere else on the ballot.

• The names of two candidates have been marked, but there was an attempt to erase a mark.

• The name of a candidate has been written in the proper place, even if that spot is not marked by a voter.

A ballot also cannot be rejected if it is "slightly soiled or defaced."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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