Flashback Friday: Long Recount in Governor's Race Finally Ended 55 Years Ago

March 16, 2018 09:32 AM

Minnesota voters went to the polls on Nov. 6, 1962, to decide who would be the state's next governor.

But it wasn't until almost four-and-a-half months later on March 21, 1963, that they found out the official answer to that question.


It was 55 years ago this coming week when a three-judge panel formed by the state's Supreme Court ordered that challenger Karl Rolvaag, the DFL candidate, be declared the winner, accepting as definitive his 91-vote lead.

Two days later, Republican incumbent Elmer Andersen waived his right to appeal, ending a process that had see-sawed back-and-forth between the state's canvassing board, the courts and a hand recount conducted at county courthouses across the state.

"The whole time the recount was going on, (Andersen) never once asked me how things were going," recalls Tom Swain, now 96, who had served as Andersen's chief of staff earlier in his term and was asked by the governor to handle the recount on his behalf.

"Had it been the other way around, I would have been asking him every day. But he handled the whole process masterfully," Swain said, "and, at the end, he was very gracious."

The election - the first in which the winner would be elected to a four-year term (previously terms had been just two years) - had been a razor-thin affair ever since the first returns from around 1.3 million ballots cast began rolling in on election day.

According to articles on the Minnesota Historical Society website, Rolvaag, the state's Lt. Governor (at the time, the governor and lieutenant governor were elected separately), had initially led by 59 votes.

But after the Supreme Court directed the canvassing board to accept amended returns from 10 counties that claimed their initial returns were incorrect, the board declared Andersen the winner by 142 votes on Nov. 29.

That, in turn, caused Rolvaag to file a motion seeking a recount of the 800,000 paper ballots cast. The Supreme Court agreed, forming the three-judge panel to oversee the recount which began on Dec. 19.

Each site featured a Republican, DFL and neutral observer. Both the Republican and DFL representatives had the ability to challenge a ballot.

That process dragged on into January, and finally moved back into the courts for a February trial before the three-judge panel. In the meantime, a new legislative session was already underway with Andersen still serving as governor. Though Rolvaag also set up an office in the State Capitol.

"They got along," recalls Swain of the two candidates. "They knew it didn't have to be bitter. They were not close friends, but they had been in politics together and they didn't look for ways to insult each other."

David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline, said that air of civility makes the 1962 recount stand out in contrast to the 2008 U.S. Senate election in Minnesota, in which the recount process lasted well into the following summer before Democrat Al Franken was declared the winner over Republican incumbent Norm Coleman.

"It really strikes me as interesting that unlike the Franken/Coleman election, which left deep wounds that continue in Minnesota to this day, the result of that election didn't seem to leave deep wounds on either side," Schultz said. "The two candidates were incredibly cordial to each other."

He added, "If you look back at the news from the time, there was some degree of hyperventilation on both sides. But you didn't see the type of deep partisan anger - or the allegations of fraud and corruption - that you saw during the Franken/Coleman recount."

The 2008 recount did bring back memories of 1962 for those who had been involved in that earlier race.

"I had been the executive director of the committee that planned the state's Centennial Celebration (in 1958), then I was involved in the recount," recalls Swain with a chuckle. "I remember my wife telling me I was becoming an expert on more things there would never be a demand for again. But I lived long enough and the state celebrated its 150th anniversary. People called me for advice. Then, sure enough, we ended up having another recount that same year."

As for the two candidates involved, both seemed to fall somewhat out of favor in their own parties.

The DFL chose to endorse Lt. Governor Sandy Keith over Rolvaag when he came up for re-election in 1966. And though he defeated Keith in the primary, Rolvaag went on to lose to Republican Harold LeVander in the general election.

He was later appointed U.S. ambassador to Iceland by President Lyndon Johnson, and he would go on to devote his energy toward helping others battling alcoholism, a disease with which he himself had struggled.

"I had been through six different treatment sequences," he told KSTP in 1980 of his time at Hazelden Treatment Center. "I learned the lessons. I learned by rote the mechanical answers. But I had not discovered the spiritual quality of life. And it was here that I began to grasp that. That is what has contributed to my recovery, at least as far as it's come. I don't ever claim to be recovered or cured. But I am on the road to recovery."

Andersen, meanwhile, went on to lead efforts to create Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, and ended up endorsing Democrat John Kerry for president shortly before his death in November 2004.

"He was a very progressive Republican," Swain said. "When he was governor, there were some who said he may have had a better relationship with the liberals in the legislature than the conservatives. And there was some validity to that. He always considered himself a progressive."

But Swain said it was the class with which Andersen conceded defeat 55 years ago that has stuck with him over the years.

"He'd never lost an election in his whole life," Swain said. "But he didn't appeal the decision. Even though there were many in the Republican party urging him to do so. He accepted the decision gracefully. And that was the kind of person he was."


Frank Rajkowski

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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