If you think your vote really doesn’t matter this week, talk to 99-year-old Tom Swain.
Born on the Fourth of July, Swain graduated from Washburn High School in Minneapolis at 16 and worked in the Gophers ticket office to pay for college, earning a business degree from University of Minnesota in 1942. He went on to forge a career in insurance and civic work and gain a lofty foothold in the upper reaches of state government.
It was as chief of staff to Republican Gov. Elmer L. Andersen that Swain had an inside view of the 1962 governor’s race as his boss fought to win a second term just when the state was shifting from two- to four-year gubernatorial stints.
The initial ballot count showed DFL Lt. Gov. Karl Rolvaag up by 58 votes. Then amended returns had Andersen winning by 142 votes. When Rolvaag successfully petitioned for a recount, Swain led Andersen’s recount team during a four-month legal battle that ultimately gave the governor’s office to Rolvaag.
The margin of victory? Ninety-one votes, or 0.007% of the 1.25 million ballots cast.
“It came down to about one vote in each of Minnesota’s 87 counties,” Swain said from his apartment in Lilydale, across the river from downtown St. Paul where he was elected mayor at 85. His memory is still sharp as a steak knife. “So for all those people who think their votes don’t count, just go back and look at that one from 1962.”
Or flash back a dozen years to 2008, when the initial statewide totals showed U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman fending off satirist and talk show host Al Franken in his re-election bid. While Rolvaag had to wait 139 days after Election Day to be sworn in, the Franken-Coleman recount clash ran 246 days before Franken won by 312 votes.
By comparison, the George W. Bush-Al Gore presidential nail-biter of 20 years ago took a relatively brisk 36 days before the U.S. Supreme Court put Bush in the White House. And before you dismiss all this recount talk as just history, consider: Joe Biden has hired Washington-based attorney Marc Elias — Franken’s recount point man in 2008 — to quarterback his campaign’s legal team if this week’s presidential election winds up contested.
During the 1962 recount, Rolvaag was holed up in a State Capitol basement office nicknamed “the broom closet” — it measured 128 square feet — while Andersen lingered in the plush governor’s office upstairs for 75 days beyond his elected term. That was because Rolvaag’s quarters as lieutenant governor belonged to newly elected DFLer Sandy Keith, back when governors and lieutenant governors ran separately. (Keith died Oct. 3 in Rochester at 91.)
It took just 15 minutes on March 25, 1962, for Rolvaag, 49, to pack his boxes, go upstairs and become Minnesota’s 31st governor. He’d been mostly known as the son of Norwegian American author Ole E. Rolvaag, who wrote the acclaimed novel “Giants in the Earth” and taught literature at St. Olaf College in Northfield. Ole died in 1931, forcing his son to drop out from St. Olaf and work during the Depression as a logger, miner and rancher before serving as a tank commander in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army during World War II.
Before Rolvaag took control, Andersen had to forgo an appeal to the state Supreme Court and concede. An appeal would have kept him in office through the legislative session because a new governor couldn’t take office until the vote had been certified. Three-person teams had scoured hand-filled ballots at courthouses across the state before a three-judge panel ruled Rolvaag the winner.
“The Republican hierarchy really wanted us to appeal,” recalled Swain, who joined Andersen for lunch at the St. Paul Athletic Club after the judges ruled. They decided against it: “We felt it would be poor tactics and perceived as phony if we appealed just to stay in office through the session.”
Later that afternoon, Andersen conceded: “Today ends one chapter, admittedly a shorter chapter than I intended. … I am defeated but not the least disheartened.”
Forty-six years later, history repeated itself when U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman went from a narrow lead the morning after the election to narrow recount loss. Coleman’s U.S. Senate seat remained open until July as he took his case unsuccessfully to the state Supreme Court.
I covered Coleman’s news conference the day after the 2008 election, when he declared victory by a margin of 725 votes. He said Franken should step aside and spare the state from a lengthy challenge. I asked him if he’d walk away if he was down by 725 votes after the automatic recount. Coleman said he would — and then proceeded to contest the election for six months after the state canvassing board put Franken ahead by 225 votes.
“Sure I wanted to win,” Coleman said in 2013. “After all, issues and politicians come and go, but voting is fundamental. It is the essence of democracy. ... In these tough times, we all need to focus on the future.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.