oday a team of Republican election experts is in South Dakota, looking into the circumstances of Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson's extraordinarily narrow, last-minute victory over Republican candidate John Thune.
While it is certainly possible that there were no significant irregularities involved in the voting, some Republicans are puzzled by the way the vote-counting unfolded. Early Wednesday morning, with 99.65 percent of South Dakota's precincts reporting, Thune held a narrow lead over Johnson. It was only when the last three precincts (out of a total of 844) were counted that Johnson finally edged ahead. What has made some Republicans suspicious is that those final precincts were located in a southwestern county that was in the news for allegations of voting fraud in the weeks leading up to the election.MINUTE BY MINUTE
For most of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, the election returns looked promising for Thune. At 1:32 A.M. EST on Wednesday, an Associated Press report showed Thune had 134,904 votes to Johnson's 132,648 with 648, or 77 percent, of the state's precincts reporting.
At 2.47 A.M., the AP issued another report, this one showing Thune with 153,952 votes to Johnson's 149,789, with 736, or 87 percent, of precincts reporting a lead of more than 4,000 votes.
At 3:41 A.M., Thune was up 158,331 to 154,602, with 776, or 92 percent, of precincts reporting.
At some point after that, Thune's lead began to shrink. By 6:38 A.M., with 838, or 99.3 percent, of the state's 844 precincts reporting, Thune led Johnson by 166,588 to 165,639 votes. It was close, but Thune was still in the lead by nearly 1,000 votes with just six precincts left to count.
Then the lead narrowed dramatically. By 8:28 A.M., Thune had 166,747 votes to Johnson's 166,559, with 841, or 99.65 percent, of the 844 precincts reporting. Thune was up by just 188 votes with three precincts left to count.
Those last precincts killed Thune's chances to win. At 9:21 A.M., with 843 of 844 precincts reporting, Thune trailed Johnson, 166,707 to 167,252.
Finally, at 10:22 A.M., the last precinct was counted and reported. Thune trailed Johnson 166,954 to 167,481 a margin of 527 votes. Johnson claimed victory.
It was a stunning finish to a race that was clearly tight but appeared for much of the night to be in Thune's hands. Somewhere in the last five precincts, Thune's Senate hopes disappeared.
In mid-October, the Shannon County auditor said one in ten of the county's new registrations was under investigation for possible irregularities. On October 20, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported that, "Auditors in 10 counties, all but one adjoining a reservation, have forwarded questionable registration forms or absentee ballot requests to the sheriff or state's attorney for investigation. Of the nearly 400 questionable documents discovered by the auditors, 338 came from Shannon and Pennington counties, where the two investigations into possible voter fraud are under way."
Shannon County went heavily for Johnson out of 3,118 votes cast, 2,856, or about 92 percent, went to Johnson, while 248 went to Thune (a third-party candidate received 14 votes). That percentage, in itself, might not be particularly unusual; Native Americans in South Dakota vote heavily Democratic, and Johnson is popular with Native Americans. But one thing that has aroused Republican curiosity is the significant increase in the number of votes cast in Shannon County since the last mid-term election, in 1998, in which Sen. Tom Daschle won reelection.
In 1998, there were just 1,559 votes cast in Shannon (that is precisely half the votes cast this year a statistical nicety that might signify nothing, but might still catch Republican eyes). Of the 1998 total, 1,228 went to Daschle and 239 went to Republican Ron Schmidt (a third-party candidate won 92 votes).
What some Republicans find interesting about the numbers is that the popular Daschle, who won in a landslide statewide, won just 79 percent of the votes in Shannon County significantly less than Johnson won this year while Schmidt, who lost by a huge margin in 1998, received about the same number of votes that the well-known Thune received this year. Even though the total number of voters in Shannon County has gone up dramatically, it appears that virtually none of them chose Thune.
The situation might be completely attributable to get-out-the-vote efforts; 17,000 new voters were signed up statewide in recent months, and Democrats were particularly aggressive in Shannon County and on the state's other Indian reservations. But Republicans signed up new voters, too, and now they want to have a look at the county's voting patterns.
Finally, the GOP wants to know more about the timing of the Shannon County returns. Although nothing is set in stone, some observers say it is not usually the pattern in statewide elections for Shannon County returns to be the last counted. Given the fact that the county provided Johnson's winning margin, and given the earlier allegations of corruption, Republicans want to know why Shannon was so late this time.
According to state law, Thune is entitled to ask for a recount. On Wednesday, he released a carefully worded statement that suggested he might choose to do so. "If there is a change in the numbers or evidence of irregularities after the official election canvass, I will look at pursuing the next step in the process, which is a formal recount," Thune said:
Speaking publicly later on Wednesday, Thune seemed inclined to let the matter drop after the canvass. At this point, it is simply not clear whether he will ask for a recount or take any other action.
Republicans want to be careful in the course they choose. They have already won the Senate, and they do not want to embroil the party in a long, acrimonious fight over a contest that will not affect the balance of power in Washington. In addition, they do not want to embark on a Democratic-style legal battle if there is no solid evidence of fraud. But at this point, they want to know what happened. The circumstances of Johnson's last-minute comeback look a little odd, and Republicans want to learn the story behind the numbers.