The 400 sealed white boxes locked in Room 345 of the Anoka County Government Center contain 182,000 completed election ballots awaiting next week's scheduled recount in the Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken.

On Wednesday, when the ballots have been moved to the seventh-floor area used for County Board meetings, dozens of screened volunteers will begin a hand count of the ballots expected to last three days. They will hardly work in seclusion.

"We expect there will be people representing Coleman and Franken looking over our shoulders," said Anoka County Elections Manager Rachel Smith. "The Coleman people have already been here."

It may not be the most exciting project to scrutinize: Each day, 10 teams of volunteers will attempt to examine and hand count 6,000 ballots per team.

Three volunteers -- many of them city clerks and staffers or election officials from throughout the county -- will sit at each table. One person will sort the ballots into three piles -- for Coleman, for Franken and for "other" (formerly known as Dean Barkley). One person examines and counts the Franken pile; another volunteer examines and counts the Coleman pile. Ballots for "other" candidates will not be counted.

The piles will be further divided into groups of 25 that will correlate with the machine count from Election Day. After the Franken and Coleman ballots are hand counted -- piles of 25 at a time -- the totals will be compared to the election-machine totals. If the hand counts and machine counts are different, the ballots will be hand counted again.

With the slim vote margin dividing the candidates, any change in the tally anywhere in the state could decide the final result. In the machine count in Anoka County, Coleman received 82,289 votes, Franken got 66,790 votes and Barkley 30,503.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419