Historic Senate recount begins

ST. PAUL - A historic recount was under way across Minnesota today, possibly with control of the U.S. Senate being decided. No major problems were reported early, although many county elections officials fielded unexpected questions. Hundreds of ...

ST. PAUL - A historic recount was under way across Minnesota today, possibly with control of the U.S. Senate being decided.

No major problems were reported early, although many county elections officials fielded unexpected questions.

Hundreds of elections officials, at least as many observers working for the two Senate campaigns and simply interested Minnesotans gathered in government buildings across the state.

But while Minnesotans watched the recount in a tight race between Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken, the specter of legal challenges remained near.

A Ramsey County District Court judge this morning promised a ruling later today on a Franken lawsuit demanding names of people whose absentee ballots were rejected. Franken campaign officials said they want to make sure every vote is counted, and they claim to have found several cases in which absentee ballots were improperly thrown out.


Massive legal teams for both campaigns stood ready to go to court over a variety of issues, possibly giving judges the final decision about who is elected.

Every one of the 2.9 million ballots cast on Nov. 4, and earlier as absentee votes, will be examined individually at 107 sites across the state. It probably will not be until the last half of December before Minnesotans know who they elected because the state Canvassing Board will need to examine any ballots the Senate campaigns dispute.

After local elections officials conducted preliminary vote reviews since the election, Coleman held a 215-vote lead.

It is the closest election in state history, following the most expensive Minnesota campaign ever.

Reports from around the state indicate relatively few ballots were challenged ballots and no big changes in the earlier vote totals in the early going, but officials said they expected more challenges as the day wore on.

In Kandiyohi County, for instance, Colman picked up two votes in the first two hours and there were no challenged ballots in Kandiyohi County precincts outside of Willmar.

In Willmar, a voter on the one ballot challenged in the first hour marked a big "X" next between the ballot circles for candidates Dean Barkley and Coleman. The city recount judges ruled that there was not clear voter intent. City Clerk Kevin Halliday said that the voting machine had counted the challenged ballot as a vote for Coleman.

The recount had barely started in Otter Tail County when the process came to a halt. The issue: observers from both campaigns wanted to see the back of the ballots being counted to determine if there were any identifying marks. Rules say any marks that would identify a voter renders an entire ballot invalid.


Otter Tail County Auditor Wayne Stein checked with the secretary of state's office and was told the same question was popping up at recount centers across the state.

He said election officials are being advised to allow observers to see the back of ballots, preferably by fanning out several at a time.

By late morning, Chippewa County observers disputed just one ballot. It had been marked for two candidates in the Senate race, and a Franken observer requested it be forwarded to the state Canvassing Board. With 15 of 23 precincts counted the effort had found no differences from election night totals.

So many Franken observers showed up at the Clay County Courthouse in Moorhead that they discussed sending some to nearby Fergus Falls. No fewer than 12 election observers were there for Franken, with at least four for Coleman.

In Norman County, the recount was half done in the first hour, with no ballots challenged by either candidate.

In St. Louis County, with 187 precincts, it is expected to take at least five days for county auditor's office employees to count each ballot.

Bill Cortes of Duluth, an observer for the Franken campaign, said votes were being challenged because some voters mistakenly voted for multiple candidates in the same race. While those spoiled votes likely would have been noticed by electronic scanners, they may have been missed in polling places where ballots are counted by hand.

Dozens of Coleman and Franken supporters crammed into the county board chambers this morning, with officials from each camp watching county staff count the ballots, including out-of-town attorneys on both sides. Some campaign observers claimed the county employees were counting too fast, others that too many people were in the way.


In today's legal action, Ramsey Country District Judge Dale Lindman said he would rule yet today on a request by Franken's campaign that the county release information about voters who cast absentee ballots that were rejected.

Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Darwin Lookingbill argued that state law indicates the data included on the envelopes containing rejected ballots is private -- including voter name and address -- and that releasing it would lead to a small group of voters being "singled out for attention" by a campaign.

Franken attorney David Lillehaug said that data is public after the election and that the campaign only is asking for the data now,.

Fritz Knaak, a Coleman attorney, echoed Lookingbill's concern about voter privacy. He said the information on the envelope of an accepted absentee ballot is not known and rejected ballots should be treated the same.

Franken officials say if Ramsey County is ordered to give its list, other counties should follow. The case is important because it could allow Franken to find more votes, and in such a narrow race every vote is important.

Recounts today started at about half of the 107 sites, but other cities and counties begin their recounts at various times through Dec. 3.

Each night throughout the process, state officials will release unofficial recount returns, which the Colman campaign today warned would vary.

"It's important to remember that the vote count reflected today will swing wildly from day to day - and most likely - throughout the recount process," campaign officials wrote. "This is a natural process of the recount, and one which is expected and normal. When all is said and done, the key point is the final tally once the recount is completed. We believe it will remain a result that has Norm Coleman re-elected to the United States Senate."


Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, the state's top elections official, hopes to have the recount finished by Dec. 5. He plans to bring the Canvassing Board back into session on Dec. 16 to begin examining every ballot either campaign challenged. With the closeness of the vote, that is expected to determine who wins the election.

All of this carries national importance because by the time the recount is done, the U.S. Senate could have 59 Democrats - depending on a pending new Georgia vote in early December. If Democrats have 60 votes, they can stop Republican filibusters and more easily pass bills on their agenda.

That possibility attracted reporters from the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, CNN, Fox News and other national news outlets to Minnesota. Cable news channels delivered frequent updated on the recount today.

The West Central Tribune, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Duluth News Tribune contributed to this story.

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