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The Squeaker: Two Harbors native endures town's electoral drama

Larry Sorenson, formerly of Two Harbors, found himself in the middle of a dramatic city council election.

Lake County native Larry Sorenson recently ran for re-election to the City Council of Albertville, Minn.

It cost him the usual campaign expenses -- plus a commemorative dollar coin.

A 1982 graduate of Two Harbors High School, Sorenson went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, moved to the Twin Cities area and 16 years ago settled in Albertville, an exurban community on the way to St. Cloud along Interstate 94.

He said he's been involved in his community for many years, but as his kids grew up -- he has an 18-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter -- he wanted to do more.

"I just wanted to make a difference in my community ... to make it better," Sorenson said. So four years ago, he ran for the City Council, and won.

His recent bid for re-election did not go quite as smoothly, however. After months of campaigning, Election Day arrived. When the ballots had been counted, Sorenson had lost his bid to challenger Mark Barthel -- by one vote.

"When you run, you always say 'every vote counts,' but you have no idea that it could literally come down to one vote," Sorenson told the Lake County News-Chronicle.

One vote was clearly in the neighborhood of a mandatory recount. When the dust settled on the new tally, the candidates were found to have the same number of votes -- 1,116 apiece. To complicate the matter further, Barthel contested a ballot. A voter had only partially filled-in the oval next to Sorenson's name.

In the event of a contested ballot, a canvassing board must determine voter intent. In the case of small communities, the City Council usually acts in that capacity, said Sorenson. Albertville, a city of 7,044 citizens in Wright County, has a City Council of five members -- one of whom was Sorenson.

He did not vote because of the conflict of interest, so four members were left to make the decision.

City Councilors Jillian Hendrickson and Dan Wagner voted to accept the ballot in Sorenson's favor. Mark Meehan and John Vetsch voted against. Again, Sorenson and Barthel were tied.

"I was prepared to take it to court. I was pretty sure that if it had gone to court I would have won," Sorenson said, adding that past court decisions on contested ballots led him to believe he would have a positive outcome.

In the end, the election was not decided in a drawn-out legal battle. In fact, state law has a decidedly low-tech solution for elections that end in a draw. It states: "In case of a tie vote, the Canvassing Board having jurisdiction over the municipality shall determine the result by lot."

For Sorenson and Barthel, this meant a coin toss.

"I was disappointed that it came to that," said Sorenson.

When the time came, Kim Olson, Albertville City Clerk came into the room where the candidates gathered and tossed the gold coin into the air.

"I was just relieved that it landed on heads," Sorenson said.

The series of unusual events got him media attention -- a TV station in Los Angeles picked it up, as did one in Chicago -- which Sorenson said he doubts he would have gotten if he had won in the usual way.

From her home in Two Harbors, Sorenson's mother was awaiting news of the election, too.

"It was crazy," Jean Sorenson said with a laugh. "He emailed and called and we stayed in close touch, but by the time they came up for Thanksgiving we knew and it was like a celebration."

Officials say this is not the first time an election has been decided this way.

"It doesn't happen routinely. It's not a common occurrence, but it's not unheard of," Pat Turgeon of the Minnesota Secretary of State's office told the News-Chronicle from St. Paul.

In fact, this is not the first time in recent history that Albertville has faced this dilemma, according to Carol Blackburn of the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. In the 1986 mayoral race between Loretta Roden and James Walsh, the candidates were tied at 145 votes apiece before the election was decided by drawing one of the candidates' names out of a hat.

Closer to home, the 2004 Ward 4 City Council election in Cloquet was won by Neil Nemmers with the toss of a Sacajawea one-dollar coin.

Whatever the case, Sorenson said he glad it's over and that he's been grateful for the support of family and friends in Lake County.

"I want to thank the people who have followed my campaign and offered support," he said. Sorenson said he watched the Two Harbors races and kept in touch with friends and family in the area.

"I wish Mayor Bolen and the City Council the best luck going forward."