Notes jotted on hundreds of clipboards create the raw data stream. Number crunchers in back offices do the rest as both sides in Minnesota's close governor's race chart every ballot challenged in a statewide manual recount of more than 2.1 million ballots.
While election nerds revel in the spreadsheet-tailored details, the campaigns are engaged in a serious struggle over the public's perception of who's gaining ground — or losing it.
For now, Republican Tom Emmer's team is holding its numbers back as he tries to make up a deficit of more than 8,700 votes. There's no such restraint from Democrat Mark Dayton's side, which released its first tallies of recount votes Tuesday, claiming a net gain of 205 votes midway through the recount's second day.
With almost 70 percent of the votes recounted, the official numbers from the Minnesota secretary of state showed Dayton down 38 votes from his Nov. 2 totals for the same precincts. Emmer was down one. But an imbalance in challenges was a contributing factor.
Dayton's internal numbers showed him in better shape than the secretary of state's count because his team was apportioning challenged ballots based on the call of election judges at recount tables and not waiting for a state board to rule on them. Emmer made four times as many challenges as Dayton, 597 ballots to Dayton's 143.
"This is a very steep mountain for Tom Emmer to climb, and it's becoming more steep by the day," said Dayton recount team director Ken Martin.
Dayton's "Pony Express" recount team is hunkered down in a shabby St. Paul office undergoing remodeling, with a room for scanning photocopies of challenged ballots and charts on the wall outlining where the recount stands in the state's 87 counties.
Republican Party officials declined to allow The Associated Press into the Emmer recount war room. But like their counterparts on the other side, Emmer's recount volunteers and attorneys are closely tracking challenged ballots at recount sites in government centers and city halls across the state.
GOP Chairman Tony Sutton said he's not surprised the recount hasn't produced significant gains for Emmer so far, hinting at a possible post-recount lawsuit that would ultimately be Emmer's call. Sutton said he is looking at issues such as matching the number of votes and voters and a process called vouching, where a registered voter can attest to the residency of an unregistered voter.
"There's definitely some issues that merit review, that could alter the outcome of the election," Sutton said.
The intense focus on ballot challenges builds on a strategy developed during the 2008 Senate recount in the much closer race between Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman. Challenges matter because they can temporarily keep votes out of candidate columns, distorting the numbers as the process moves along. For a while, it looked like Franken was losing ground.
"Ultimately it didn't affect the count at all, but it certainly was just a huge problem in terms of public perception," said Jess McIntosh, who was the spokeswoman for the Franken recount team.
The perception issue led Franken's side to start releasing its own set of daily recount tallies, including election judges' calls on challenged ballots. Their numbers ended up much closer to the final recount result than the official tallies had been, after most of the challenges were either withdrawn or overruled by the state canvassing board. Franken won the race after the recount and a court fight.
This year, there's a new twist in the recount: "frivolous" challenges. Election judges are labeling many challenges that way when partisans question sloppily filled-in ovals and other mistakes not considered serious enough to cast doubt on the voter's intent. The frivolous challenges aren't included in the tally of challenges considered legitimate, but they're still marked so state canvassing board members can examine them later if they wish.
Emmer spokesman Carl Kuhl said his side doesn't plan to release daily tallies.
"These things change and change quickly," he said.
The taxpayer-funded recount is automatic because Dayton's lead is within a half-percentage point. The goal is to finish the recount by mid-December, although a final resolution could be delayed if the loser goes to court.
Associated Press photographer Jim Mone contributed to this report.