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Senate race rests on disputed ballots

An employee at the Carlton County Courthouse counts election ballots as several observers pay close attention Thursday. staff photo by Lisa Baumann

ST. PAUL - U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman's lead dwindled and the number of disputed ballots dramatically rose in the second day of Minnesota's U.S. Senate race recount.

By Thursday night, 734 ballots had been challenged, a figure that dwarfs the 215-vote margin Republican Coleman led Democratic challenger Al Franken by before the recount began Wednesday. A state board will look at each challenged ballot to see who, if anyone, gets that vote.

The two campaigns challenged more than twice as many ballots Thursday as they did on the recount's first day.

Coleman continued to lead Franken after two days of recounting, and both campaigns said the early numbers bode well for their eventual success.

The secretary of state's office Thursday night reported that unofficially with 42 percent of the ballots recounted, Coleman lost a net of 86 votes in the recounted precincts, compared to the same precincts' pre-recount returns. That would reduce the lead he held before the recount to 129 votes.

In the raw vote, Coleman holds a 43 percent to 40 percent lead, but many of the ballots left to recount are in urban areas that lean toward Franken. Many rural Republican counties completed their recounts.

Both campaigns saw good signs in the numbers.

"We are picking up votes across the state," Franken attorney Marc Elias said. "In some cases, we are picking up big chunks."

Coleman's staff said the same thing.

"We are ahead of where we expected to be at this point," Coleman lawyer Fritz Knaak said.

Other than normal vote fluctuations seen during any recount, two major issues remain:

-- The two campaigns are challenging hundreds of ballots, far more than the difference expected between them at the end of the recount.

-- Absentee ballots that local officials rejected, which also could be in the hundreds, should be considered, the Franken campaign says.

The state Canvassing Board is expected to meet Wednesday to decide the absentee issue and in December to count challenged ballots. Between the two issues, the five-member board easily will consider enough ballots to decide the winner.

Regardless of the recount, most observers say there is a good chance the election will end up in court.

Before any of that takes place, however, every one of the 2.9 million ballots needs to be counted. Most counties appear to be progressing faster than expected, although some do not start their recounts until as late as Dec. 3.

A not-so-swift recount start in Swift County Thursday brought up issues being debated statewide.

The morning began with confusion and a heated exchange between the Swift County auditor and a Coleman campaign official, one of the few flare-ups in the state.

Stacey Barrack objected to Auditor Byron Giese's denial of a challenge made by the Coleman observer. She told Giese that he had no right to voice his opinion on whether a challenge was frivolous.

"Challenge me in court," Giese said. "I call it a frivolous challenge."

Barrack also asked that Franken and Coleman observers be allowed to see the back of the ballots.

After Giese talked to the secretary of state's office, he ordered the recount of the initial precinct to start over, allowing both sides of the ballot to be viewed and allowing challenges without stating his opinion.

Frivolous challenges and seeing both sides of ballots were issues heard around the state.

The two campaigns exchanged charges that the other side might be engaging in some frivolous challenges. Each campaign has the authority to reject any ballot for a legitimate reason, sending it to the state board.

A common reason to challenge a ballot is that there was more than one mark near the Senate candidates' names, raising the question of who the voter intended to pick.

Several local election officials have questioned whether both sides of ballots should be examined. The secretary of state's office says yes, because marks anywhere on a ballot that could identify the voter disqualify that ballot.

The recount in St. Louis County attracted the most attention for the second day, but brought little change. In the first two days of the recount, unofficial secretary of state figures show Franken gained 32 votes, while Coleman picked up 13. The Republican's camp has complained since the Nov. 4 election that it appears Franken is gaining votes out of nowhere in the heavily Democratic county.

Recounting began Thursday at nearly 30 locations. It already has ended in nearly two dozen of the 87 counties.

Carlton County was like most recount sites -- uneventful.

"It's going well," said Carlton County Auditor Paul Gassert. "Nothing unusual."

He and two staff members counted votes one precinct at a time while at least six people observed.

Cottonwood County Auditor Jan Johnson said there were nine ballot challenges, mostly where voters marked more than one candidate and the machine voided both votes.

"In that case when you visually inspect it you can tell what the voter's intent was," Johnson said.

Johnson said the atmosphere was not hostile and only one member of the public stopped in to watch the action -- a county commissioner interested in politics.

In a rare occurrence, both Senate candidates lost Clay County votes, but Coleman held onto his lead. The Republican lost nine votes, Franken lost 12.

Clay County Auditor Lori Johnson said the unaccounted 14 votes could have resulted from a machine error where a ballot scanner jammed, the ballot was removed and an election worker inserted it again, counting the vote twice.

"It's a relief to have it done," Johnson said after announcing the final recount results. "I couldn't have asked for a smoother recount."

State Capitol reporter Scott Wente and reporters from the Pine Journal, Worthington Daily Globe, Duluth News Tribune, West Central Tribune and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead 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.