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No clean end to Senate recount

ST. PAUL -- Minnesotans are out of luck if they thought completion of the historic U.S. Senate recount would bring about a tidy end to the race. Most election officials on Friday breathed a sigh of relief as nearly all of the 2.9 million ballots ...

ST. PAUL -- Minnesotans are out of luck if they thought completion of the historic U.S. Senate recount would bring about a tidy end to the race.

Most election officials on Friday breathed a sigh of relief as nearly all of the 2.9 million ballots had been recounted by hand, giving Sen. Norm Coleman a 192-vote edge over Democrat Al Franken.

That slim lead - which narrowed from Coleman's 215-vote lead before the recount -- is based on comparing each precinct's results from the initial ballot tally with the recount results.

In the raw vote total reported Friday, Coleman had 1,208,344 votes to Franken's 1,207,657.

But three key factors cloud the tally and Coleman's apparent lead - and ensure the race will remain undecided for at least two more weeks.

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The ballots in all but one of Minnesota's 4,130 precincts were counted and reported by 1:28 p.m. Friday, but the recount deadline was extended in a Minneapolis precinct where 133 ballots were reported missing. That left the recount incomplete.

The outcome also rests on the campaigns' remaining 5,372 ballot challenges and the possibility another pile of ballots - absentee votes improperly rejected by election workers - still will be counted.

Still, nearly finishing Minnesota's first major hand recount since 1962 is a big step, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said.

"The hardest part - counting 3 million ballots under the glare of 1,000 klieg lights - that's the hardest part and it's over," he told reporters minutes after his office reported 99.9 percent of ballots were recounted.

There are challenges ahead, Ritchie said. He urged the campaigns to withdraw "a significant number of the frivolous challenges that they've made." The state Canvassing Board - which includes Ritchie and four judges - must examine all challenged ballots. The board is scheduled to meet for up to four days beginning Dec. 16 for that process.

Each challenged ballot that goes before the board must be examined to determine voter intent. For legitimate challenges, that could take two minutes per ballot, Ritchie estimated. Reviewing several thousand ballots would take four or five days.

"Going through 6,000 challenged ballots - big job," he said.

Coleman's campaign has withdrawn 650 of its 3,375 ballot challenges. Franken's campaign has pulled 633 of its 3,280 challenges. Attorneys for the campaigns are expected to meet Wednesday to discuss further withdrawals. The campaigns say they will reduce their challenges before the Canvassing Board meets, but neither will say how many will be dropped.

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The Minneapolis precinct excluded, the recount took 12 days and occurred at 107 sites around the state.

Counties' work is not done, however. The secretary of state's office asked that in the coming days counties sort their rejected absentee ballots into piles of those rejected properly and those believed rejected improperly or by mistake.

The Franken campaign has argued those improperly rejected absentee ballots should be included in the tally. Canvassing Board members will meet Dec. 12 to decide what should be done with them.

Counties have until Dec. 18 to sort the piles and report the number of improperly rejected ballots to Ritchie's office. The secretary said Friday 60 counties already scheduled their sorting time and that it should not take long.

As the recount drew toward a close Friday morning, the campaigns were arguing over how the Minneapolis ballot issue should be handled. Franken's campaign said the recount should not be finalized until the missing ballots are found, and applauded the secretary of state's office for extending the deadline.

"They are taking all the steps that are appropriate and we appreciate that," Franken lead recount attorney Marc Elias said.

Coleman's campaign was not convinced there were missing ballots. Lead recount attorney Fritz Knaak said the campaign was "wary" of the secretary of state's decision. The campaign asked Ritchie, a Democrat, to consider the appearance of his office's willingness to extend the recount deadline for the precinct in Democratic-stronghold Minneapolis.

"I am not making any allegations," Knaak said. "I'm expressing our profound concern."

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