Ballots for which one or more candidates do not agree were wrongfully rejected

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A set of previously-rejected absentee ballots in the Minnesota senatorial election have now been counted. Some background on the process that led to this event can be found in the affidavit of Tony P. Trimble (12-31-08), which includes as Exhibit A "Rules for Processing Improperly Rejected Absentee Ballots for US Senators", which in turn includes point 15:

There are a couple of linguistically interesting things about this crucial provision of the protocol. The first one is an unexpected "for":

… the candidates' representatives will forward to the local election officials a list of all additional rejected absentee ballots for which both candidates' representatives now agree were wrongfully rejected.

(There's also an interesting use of "now" to mean "at that time", but never mind that.)  The following sentence repeats the extra "for", confirming that the first one wasn't a typographical error. But in addition, this sentence wraps its meaning in a baffling tangle of quantifiers, negatives, lexical ambiguities, and phrasal interconnections:

At the same time, they shall forward to the local election officials a list of all rejected absentee ballots for which one or more candidates' representative(s) do not agree were wrongfully rejected.

Apparently the process defined by this protocol took place as scheduled. According to yesterday evening's post by Nate Silver, there were 952 rejected absentee ballots that both candidates agreed should be counted, out of 1346 rejected absentee ballots altogether. This mutually-agreed-on subset was duly counted, adding 176 votes to challenger Al Franken's lead over incumbent Norm Coleman.

But I sincerely hope that the legality of this process doesn't depend on it being in compliance with the protocol specified in section 15 of Appendix A to Mr. Trimble's affidavit of 12-31-08. At least, I wouldn't want to be in the position of having to verify that some particular list was in fact "a list of all rejected absentee ballots for which one or more candidates' representative(s) do not agree were wrongfully rejected", even though (as I understand it) this list was relevant only by virtue of being the list of ballots that would NOT be counted at this stage.

[Hat tip: Jonathan Weinberg]

[Update: Perhaps the problem is not an extraneous "for", but rather a missing "they".  A search for similar phrases turned up this item, with a relative clause starting "the ballots for which …", and a resumptive pronoun a couple of levels down in the modifying sentence:

"Today we are sending a letter to all 87 counties asking them that … the ballots for which there is no legal justification for them not being counted be opened and counted," said Franken attorney Marc Elias in a conference call Friday.

So maybe the phrase under discussion was originally something like

… a list of all rejected absentee ballots for which one or more candidates' representative(s) do not agree that they were wrongfully rejected.

rather than

… a list of all rejected absentee ballots which one or more candidates' representative(s) do not agree were wrongfully rejected.

Both of these seem to me to be grammatical, if awkward; while the original is well outside the boundaries of my personal version of English:

… a list of all rejected absentee ballots for which one or more candidates' representative(s) do not agree were wrongfully rejected.

I hope it's clear that I'm not trying to impose some abstract conscious belief about proper relative clause structure. Jonathan Weinberg sent this in as a possible case of mis-negation, but I got stuck on an intuitive WTF reaction to the "for which".  I can explain my reaction in terms of an explicit syntactic and semantic analysis, but the reaction preceded the analysis. ]


  1. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 10:50 am

    I could not fail to disagree with you less.

  2. Jason F. Siegel said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    I agree with the main thrust of the post, but I'm going to respectfully disagree about the use of 'now' for 'at that time'. 'Now' refers to the present in that sentence. The ballots were rejected for some reason, usually related to no knowing the voter's intent (too many candidates selected, too few, erasure marks, etc.). Some of these were wrongly discarded. The candidates now (in the present) agree that these 950+ ballots were wrongly discarded (in the past), i.e. that the voter intent was clear and that due to human error (giving the benefit of the doubt here), the ballots were discarded anyway. They did not necessarily agree at the time that the ballots were wrongly tossed out, however.

  3. Mark Etherton said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 11:24 am

    I am woefully ignorant of the means by which the rules applying to senatorial elections are agreed in Minnesota, but if the process involves any form of negotiation it is perhaps not surprising that the result includes infelicities and obscurities. Treaty negotiation, particularly multilateral, frequently produces text that is difficult to interpret, or indeed inaccurate. A good example is the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (the CTBT), which not only includes a famously obscure passage in the article on entry into force ("If this Treaty has not entered into force three years after the date of the anniversary of its opening for signature, the Depositary shall convene a Conference of the States that have already deposited their instruments of ratification upon the request of a majority of those States."), which left it uncertain whether the Conference should be convened three years or four years after opening for signature, but also has an annex to a protocol listing the sites of monitoring stations with latitude and longitude of each, some of which are wrong. These were not put right before signature because the text of the Treaty was such a delicate political balance that it was feared that to reopen it once agreed, even to make factual corrections, would lead to the whole deal falling apart. Compromise sometimes entails accepting language that is far from limpid.

  4. Garrett Wollman said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

    What struck me at first glance was "wrongfully rejected". "Wrongfully" to me implies some sort of malfeasance; I would — giving the election officials the benefit of the doubt — have said "wrongly rejected" here (i.e., rejected in error rather than in malice).

  5. C.J. Jameson said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

    I think that the inclusion of the 'for' indicates that they have moved somewhat beyond thinking of ballots as the physical pieces of paper that people use to vote, to thinking of ballots as individual instances in a legal process, like pieces of evidence that are catalogued and presented one by one before a judge. Now, each ballot is an issue that needs to be settled, emphasizing the time during which it is considered publicly in court.

    [(myl) You're probably right about how the parties involved are thinking about the ballots, but I don't see how that helps us parse the sentence. Can you offer a comparable sentence — involving any sort of legal issue that you like — where the "for" is grammatically felicitous? ]

  6. Tim said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    I agree that the wording is convoluted. Seeing it out of context in the post's title, I had to think for some time in order to parse it. But, in the context of the entire paragraph, it makes more sense. If you understand "absentee ballots for which both candidates' representatives now agree were wrongfully rejected", it's not hard to figure out that the other phrase is just the opposite.

    [(myl) It's certainly convoluted. But "just the opposite" is not enough to nail the phrase's meaning down. Does it refer only to those ballots where one candidate's reps believe the ballot should be counted, while the other's don't? Or does it apply also to those where both agree that the rejection was proper? The phrase "one or more" seems to imply the latter. But this would just be the complement of the set denoted by the first phrase, and so it seems redundant to ask them to supply the list explicitly, given that these judgments are applied to a set of rejected ballots determined in advance by the actions of the county election authorities.]

    Though, I do also agree that "for" doesn't seem like it ought to be there.

    [(myl) Indeed. ]

  7. Rick S said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

    I wondered if "for which both candidates' representatives now agree" might originally have been "which representatives for both condidates now agree", and that in revising the sentence structure it wasn't noticed that the tiny plural-possessive-apostrophe made the "for" superfluous. In any case, I'd bet the second instance started with the first as boilerplate, rather than work out the syntax from scratch.

  8. C.J. Jameson said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    Perhaps such a sentence that I contrived would fit the bill? I wasn't able to find any good real life examples.

    "The jury has now seen all the pieces of evidence for which the defense has had the chance to rebut."

    It is just as awkward as the original, I admit.

    [(myl) And just as ungrammatical, unless I'm missing something. The problem, in this example as well as the original one, is that there's no source for the "for" in the relativized clause:

    *The defense has had the chance to rebut (*for) [those] pieces of evidence.

    You could make your example work as something like

    The defense has had the chance to prepare an explanation for those pieces of evidence.

    In a relative-clause construction, this would yield

    … all the pieces of evidence for which the defense has had a chance to prepare an explanation.

    But that works because explanation routinely takes a for-complement, whereas rebut doesn't. ]

  9. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

    I have a vague sense that I've seen this error type a lot in the schoolwork of children and adolescents, but usually with the preposition "in". I have a wild-ass guess where this comes from.

    A1. I really liked the painting we looked at.
    A2. I really liked the painting at which we looked.

    B1. I really liked the museum where we saw the painting.
    B2. I really liked the museum in which we saw the painting.

    C1. I really liked the painting we saw.
    C2. I really liked the painting which we saw.
    C2'. I really liked the painting in which we saw.

    A1 → A2 is a transformation that's very common in formal writing (de-stranding a preposition), as is B1 → B2 (replacing the slightly vague "where" with the slightly more specific "<P> which"; this is especially common with metaphorical "where", as in "a problem where […]"). I'm guessing that kids start with C1, and try to make it more formal, but miss the "correct" option C2 and instead hit option C2', which is superficially parallel to A2 and B2.

    (Note: I've used very simple example sentences, but in my experience this usually happens with somewhat more complex sentences, where it's easy for kids — and adults — to lose track of their sentence structure.)

    But this was presumably written by an adult, and uses "for" instead of "in", so maybe it's not the same phenomenon?

  10. Ian Preston said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 9:02 pm

    It seems to me that the reason it says "now" is that the representatives had submitted prior lists of mutually agreed wrongly rejected ballots by 10am that morning (Point 11) and that this new list is a revision to that list reached after discussion of cases of disagreement. Tha would make it "now" as in: "Having discussed it, he now changed his mind."

    On the subject of the superfluous "for", I note that
    * Point 11b has simply "The Rejected Absentee ballots listed on the spreadsheets that both parties agree were wrongfully rejected" with no "for"
    * Point 11c sometimes uses formulations with the superfluous "for" and sometimes doesn't
    * Clause 20 has "All rejected absentee ballot envelopes upon which representatives of both candidates and the local election officials agree were wrongfully rejected" with a new superfluous word, "upon."

    By the way, Clause 1 "As directed by the State Supreme Court, the following process is established to ensure for the proper inclusion of wrongly rejected absentee ballots into county canvassing reports" seems to me to have an unnecessary "for" for a different reason.

  11. Mark F. said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

    I think Ran has the right idea. What we have is a grammatical error, and the question is how it arose. In cases where you want to say "All X with property Y", if Y is complicated you often express it as a sentence with all the slots filled, in which case you have to say "All X for which Y", rather than "All X which Y". Because the Y in this case was indeed fairly complicated, the writers felt like there should be a "for which" in there, but then they failed to express Y as a sentence. This seems to be in the same family as what Ran was describing.

    I still don't think there's any question about what was intended. What we have are ungrammatical sentences for which any plausible repair gives basically the same reading, which, in a legal ruling, is a lot better than ambiguous grammatical sentences.

  12. Ian Preston said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

    To the extent that it is worth reading, please try imagining the middle paragraph of my above post with punctuation. It looked like a bullet-pointed list in the previewer before I submitted it but the HTML coding doesn't seem to have been recognised.

    [(myl) The kindest thing that can be said about the WordPress code that incorporates comments is that it's capricious. I've made an attempt to restore the punctuation as you intended it, though without using html list tags. ]

  13. Daniel Johnson said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 7:01 am

    It isn't directly relevant to this discussion, but these were unopened absentee ballots that were rejected for various administrative reasons (e.g. a signature not dated). It turns out that Minnesota law states when an absentee ballot should be rejected, and these (presumably) did not fit those legal criteria. Hence the candidate campaigns were only agreeing that an absentee ballot met the legal requirements for being valid.

  14. Aaron Davies said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    @ian: i think your examples help illuminate the issue somewhat. in clause 20, "upon" is correctly used with "agree" in the "de-stranded" style–the problem is that "agree" also has a direct object, and it can't work both ways at once. in clause 1, "ensure" is probably an attempt to strengthen "provide".

    it looks like the whole mess is the result of a really sloppy editing job.

  15. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 9:43 am

    … the candidates' representatives will forward to the local election officials a list of all additional rejected absentee ballots for which both candidates' representatives now agree were wrongfully rejected.

    Perhaps what we have here is an instance of tmesis. The paragraph was dictated during a golf game and the amanuensis mistook "Fore!" for "for". It certainly makes better sense that way.

  16. James Wimberley said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    Legal draftsmen get into a lot of trouble by avoiding the standard logical way of dealing with nested conditions, which is by multiple levels of indentation.
    Another basic tool for clear drafting is the liberal use of definitions. Instead of phrases like "a list of all rejected absentee ballots for which one or more candidates' representative(s) do not agree were wrongfully rejected", the court could have defined "contested absentee ballot" and gone from there.

  17. "set in style" — Blog Archive » A Post For Which to Read said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

    […] an interesting discussion about a strangely-worded provision in the rules for "processing improperly rejected […]

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