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Both sides question ballot challenges

The Franken campaign challenged this Meeker Count ballot, saying it was not clear the voter intended to vote for Norm Coleman. It is one of 51 ballots Franken supporters challenged in the county. Coleman supporters say it is obvious this and other voters' challenged ballots should be counted for their candidate. staff photo by Don Davis

Frivolous: (adjective).

1 a: of little weight or importance. b: having no sound basis (as in fact or law) "a frivolous lawsuit"

2 a: lacking in seriousness. b: marked by unbecoming levity

-- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

ST. PAUL - Minnesota's U.S. Senate recount turned frivolous Friday.

Each campaign accused the other of engaging in frivolous challenges, actions campaigns can use to claim that a voter's candidate pick on a ballot is not clear.

On Friday night, the secretary of state's office reported 747 ballots challenged by Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman's campaign and 778 by Democrat Al Franken supporters in the first three days of the statewide recount, which involves officials individually examining each of the 2.9 million ballots cast.

When Coleman's 215-vote pre-recount lead is adjusted with numbers from the first three days of the recount, that lead shrank to 115 with 61 percent of the ballots recounted.

The secretary of state's unofficial raw tally of only the recounted precincts showed Coleman ahead by 28,520, with many Democratic areas yet to count. The final difference is expected to be within hundreds, at most.

The large number of challenged ballots is important, for one thing, because it prevents Minnesotans from knowing just how the recount is going because challenged ballots are not counted until the state Canvassing Board meets starting Dec. 16. The board must look at each challenged ballot to determine who the voter picked for Senate, essentially deciding the race's winner because it appears there will be far more challenged ballots than the difference between the two candidates.

Both campaigns said Friday they will take a new look at challenges made by their volunteers and remove some.

While the recount proceeded faster than expected - Secretary of State Mark Ritchie predicted 75 percent of ballots would be done by tonight - discussion about frivolous challenges dominated Friday.

Franken recount attorney Marc Elias waved copies of 10 southeastern Minnesota ballots, citing them as examples of frivolous Coleman challenges.

Most of the ballots showed the voter marked the oval next to Republican John McCain's name in the presidential race, and then picked Democrat Franken in the Senate contest.

Coleman recount observers apparently challenged the ballots because they thought a voter would not pick both McCain and Franken.

But Elias said that in his view each of the ballots was "a textbook example of how to fill out an optical scan ballot."

When a reporter handed Coleman Campaign Manager Cullen Sheenan copies of two of the ballots, even he agreed it looked like Franken was the voters' choices.

Not to be outdone by Elias, Sheehan lined the walls of a Coleman conference room with copies of 51 Meeker County ballots the Franken campaign challenged, calling them "Franken's frivolous follies."

Sheehan said the challenges illustrate a Franken plot to make it look like Coleman is not doing as well as he is. "Every ballot they challenged is one less vote (being reported) for Coleman."

The manager blamed some of challenges on volunteers on both sides "who maybe get too excited and too intense and challenge too many ballots."

Still, he said about the Franken campaign: "There is a level of frivolousness that is above and beyond what is necessary."

In Meeker County, Franken backers challenged 51 ballots; Coleman supporters seven.

Meeker County Auditor Barbara Loch said that some of the challenges might have been frivolous.

"We had a very tense room all day," Loch said.

Loch said challenges during Meeker County's recount on Thursday varied from stray pen markings and the use of red ink on the ballot to the insufficient fill-in of a voting oval and a small tear in one paper ballot.

While the campaigns were challenging ballots, Coleman told reporters that he made a mistake the day after the election when he urged Franken to call off the recount. That morning, he strongly hinted - but did not promise - that he would not have challenged the vote had he been in Franken's position.

Franken was in Washington, D.C., this week raising money for the recount as well as meeting with Democratic Senate leaders.

Coleman and Franken supporters are watching at every one of the 107 recount sites across the state. Some are imported.

A Carlton County Coleman observer, Travis Couture-Lovelady, traveled from Kansas to participate in what he called "an important, historic recount."

"I'd been following the race and definitely wanted to get involved to help make sure the integrity of the race is assured," he said.

Couture-Lovelady has gone where assigned and has observed recounts in Grand Rapids and Bemidji before finding himself in Carlton County, south of Duluth.

"I just go where I'm needed," he said.

In the eastern Twin Cities' Washington County, just 48 ballots were challenged by mid-day, after nearly three days of counting. County elections officials plan to finish recounting their 130,000-plus ballots Saturday.

Also reporting relatively light challenges was Renville County, in the southwest, where like elsewhere officials carefully examined every ballot.

Franken's total vote increased by a single vote after judges ruled the voter intended to cast the ballot for Franken using a check mark rather than filling in the oval.

"The machine couldn't see it,'' County Auditor Larry Jacobs said. "But it was obvious this particular person wanted to cast a vote for Franken and that's what we did in the recount.

Reporters from the Stillwater Courier, Pine Journal and West Central Tribune contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.