Recount ordered; ballot decision delayed

ST. PAUL - Local election officials begin recounting ballots in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race today, even as the fate of hundreds of disputed ballots remains unresolved.

ST. PAUL - Local election officials begin recounting ballots in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race today, even as the fate of hundreds of disputed ballots remains unresolved.

Campaign lawyers and observers will huddle near election officials across the state as they start the hand recount of 2.9 million ballots. The state Canvassing Board Tuesday voted to begin the recount today.

County election results the board approved showed what was expected: Sen. Norm Coleman led Democrat Al Franken by such a slim margin - 215 votes - that state law mandated a recount.

The board, however, delayed a decision on whether hundreds of disputed ballots will be counted, a key controversy between the campaigns.

The board -- the secretary of state and four judges -- recessed for a few days so its members can consider a request by Franken's campaign to include absentee ballots that local officials had rejected. Franken recount attorney David Lillehaug said the campaign found examples of voters who cast absentee ballots that were wrongly thrown out.


"Can't we all agree that they shouldn't have to start a lawsuit ... before their votes are counted?" Lillehaug asked.

Board members said they need to digest a flurry of late-arriving documents, including one they received minutes before their Tuesday meeting.

"I'm in favor of taking some more time," said Kathleen Gearin, Canvassing Board member and Ramsey County District Court chief judge.

Ritchie said the Canvassing Board probably will meet again early next week to take up the issue. Election officials said the pending decision does not delay the recount process.

Some county officials expect to complete recounts in one day, so some should be finished today. Some counties may take a couple of weeks and other counties do not start the recount until Dec. 3.

The Coleman campaign insisted the Franken request was designed to stop the recount, which the Democrat's lawyers dispute. Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak said the campaign was pleased with the board's delay, but also said those ballots should not be included.

"There is no precedent for what's being requested of this body by the Franken campaign, and we see no reason why a different procedure should be followed at this late juncture," Knaak said.

The campaigns disagreed over an attorney general opinion indicating the Canvassing Board cannot decide to allow the controversial absentee ballots to be counted. Coleman's camp used it in its argument; Franken lawyers disputed it.


Heading into the Canvassing Board's hour-long meeting, Coleman led Franken by 215 votes. But once the recount was ordered, the count was back to zero.

However, the Coleman campaign declared victory Tuesday, issuing a statement saying the state board's action "confirmed" the Republican senator's re-election.

That claim was dismissed by the state's top election official.

"We certified that on all but four races the winner is known," Ritchie said.

The Senate race is among the four without a certified winner pending the recount.

"That's not the way we see it at all and I don't think that's the way most people see it," Knaak responded, adding that the campaign expects the recount result to be similar to the advantage Coleman had before it started.

Franken spokesman Andy Barr called the Coleman victory claim a "phony talking point that will not die."

The five-member board met across the street from the Capitol to order the historic recount. Forty of more than 100 recounting sites begin the work today.


Ritchie said a statewide recount conducted following a Supreme Court contest in the September primary election gave local officials some experience, but the start of the recount will be tough.

"Tomorrow and Thursday will be really hard days because we will all be learning the process and the questions will come," Ritchie said.


During the recount, elections officials will examine all ballots cast on Nov. 4 and absentee ballots cast before then, placing each in one of five piles:

-- For Republican Coleman.

-- For Democrat Franken.

-- For another candidate or when officials could not determine the voter's pick.

-- Ballots challenged by the Coleman campaign.


-- Ballots challenged by the Franken campaign.

During the recount, each campaign could have an attorney at every counting site, in additional to other volunteers who will watch and make challenges for ballots they think should be recounted.

On the eve of the recount, Ritchie reiterated his hope that all counties can finish by Dec. 5. The Canvassing Board then would convene again on Dec. 16 to look over each ballot challenged by either campaign, a task that could involve thousands of votes. That count could determine the state's senator.

As the recount begins, Franken attorneys will be in Ramsey County District Court today to demand a list of voters whose absentee ballots were rejected, a legal route the campaign pursued in hopes it would lead to other counties releasing similar information.

The Coleman and Franken campaigns spent $40 million between them before the Nov. 4 election and each is raising an estimated $1 million for the recount. Both are preparing for court challenges.

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