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Board begins ballot examination Tuesday

By Don Davis

St. Paul Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - The state Canvassing Board began what is expected to be a four-day meeting Tuesday, with the goal of determining who won Minnesota's U.S. Senate race.

But with incumbent Republican Norm Coleman leading Democrat Al Franken by fewer than 200 votes, no one really expects a final decision this week. That decision likely will end up in court.

As of late Monday afternoon, one campaign or the other had challenged nearly 1,500 ballots, claiming it was impossible to determine which candidate each voter wanted. It will be those ballots that the five-member Canvassing Board - the secretary of state, two Supreme Court justices and two Ramsey County District Court judges - will examine individually starting today to determine voters' intent.

Even if the board finishes looking over those ballots by its self-imposed Friday deadline, there remain more than enough other disputed ballots to sway the election.

For instance, there may be 1,500 absentee ballots that local elections officials improperly rejected. Coleman's campaign went to the state Supreme Court asking that they not be counted, while the Franken campaign fights that argument by saying every Minnesotan's vote should be counted.

A court hearing on the Coleman request is 1 p.m. today.

And there are hundreds of other ballots that do not fall into a neat category, but the campaigns dispute them for a variety of reasons. The so-called "incident reports" range from allegations that some ballots were counted twice to a report that Mower County elections officials treated a Franken volunteer so badly that she cried.

The state's elections chief says the court likely will have the final word on the Senate race.

"There may be some minor points at the edge that a judge has to look at," Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said Monday.

Even a "minor point" is major in this tight election.

Franken trails Coleman by most ways of figuring the vote, although the Democrat's campaign claims a four-vote lead. Franken's campaign has tried since the Nov. 4 election to get officials to count every possible ballot. Coleman's campaign has argued that rules need to be followed.

Most of the 2.9 million ballots cast on Nov. 4 or via absentee voting have been recounted by hand.

Monday's most significant development came late in the afternoon when the state's high court agreed to hear Coleman's case demanding that rejected absentee ballots not be tallied - at least until a uniform method be determined as to how a rejected ballot becomes one worthy of counting.

Franken's chief recount attorney, Marc Elias, said that method already exists in state law. Coleman's top attorney, Fritz Knaak, said that law appears to be applied differently from county to county.

Among examples the Coleman campaign offered as to differences in interpretation was a Duluth ballot that was rejected because an accompanying envelope did not include a date stating when the vote was cast. Coleman's Supreme Court filing indicates there is no evidence any other jurisdiction rejected a ballot because of a missing date.

In an issue that took on new importance Monday, Coleman's campaign urged the Canvassing Board to look into what it considers the counting of some votes twice.

When an original ballot is damaged, a duplicate may be prepared. Knaak said that in some cases, the duplicates and originals both were counted - perhaps as many as "a couple hundred."

The GOP incumbent's campaign has looked at each of the state's 4,130 precincts for duplicate ballots, Knaak said.

Coleman's campaign is using the latest dispute to raise funds. In a letter sent to supporters Monday, the campaign said supporters' help is needed now more than ever.

"They want to keep counting and keep counting until they can find a formula, or a system, that takes from Minnesotans a victory they gave to Norm Coleman on November 4th," the Coleman campaign said about the Franken organization.

Franken spokesman Andy Barr charged that Coleman is going to court to "stop the counting of lawful ballots and disenfranchise voters who did nothing wrong."

Such exchanges are not expected during the Canvassing Board meetings. Ritchie, the board's chairman, said there will be no time given to campaigns to argue about the ballots as the board examines them.

Elias had expected to offer reasons to accept or reject ballots during the process this week. He said he was surprised when he heard about Ritchie's comments, adding that the secretary's own rules allow campaigns to provide input as ballots are examined.


Canvassing Board meeting will be shown on the Web beginning at noon: