In their fight to overturn the U.S. Senate recount, Norm Coleman's legal team has begun pressing some Minnesota counties for documents on hundreds of thousands of ballots that were not previously disputed.
The lawsuit that Coleman filed last week to erase DFLer Al Franken's 225-vote lead cites a few dozen specific ballot errors that he says favored Franken. But Coleman's camp is also now casting a much wider net for other mistakes that could cost Franken votes.
The latest requests, dealing with approved absentee ballots and precinct voter rosters, are frustrating some counties. "You're talking 30,000, 40,000 pages of documents," said Stearns County elections chief Dave Walz, referring to his county alone. Joe Mansky, Ramsey County's election director, said the county has received requests for copies of "over 200,000 pieces of paper" from the campaigns.
Coleman's new strategy comes as some elections officials are expressing skepticism over his campaign's unproven assumptions that some votes were counted twice and that some absentee ballots were wrongly rejected or accepted.
Coleman lawyer Fritz Knaak agreed that the campaign's court case relies on turning assumptions of widespread voting errors into a reality big enough to overtake Franken.
"Anecdotally and otherwise, we have what we consider to be a reasonable basis, a very reasonable basis, to proceed with this on the expectation that we will see more votes," Knaak said.
The campaign rests much of its case on 654 absentee ballots that local officials rejected for not complying with state law. Coleman wants the three-judge panel that will hear his lawsuit to include those ballots, most of which come from rural and suburban areas favorable to Republicans.
Although those ballots weren't reviewed by the state Canvassing Board during the recount, some local election officials sifted through them as recently as last week after the suit was filed to see whether some should be counted.
Inquiries to a sampling of those counties and cities show local officials standing by nearly all of their earlier decisions:
• Goodhue and Anoka counties maintained that their combined share of the 654 ballots -- 22 -- should be excluded.
• In Minnetonka, City Clerk David Maeda said he saw no reason to include any of the 14 ballots he reviewed. "I was concerned that I missed some," he said, explaining why he reviewed them after Coleman filed his suit. "I think all [of them] that I looked at were properly rejected."
• Scott County's election supervisor, Mary Kay Kes, said she wouldn't include any of the 32 disputed ballots from there.
• Dakota County's Joel Beckman, the county's chief election official, said he quickly looked through a half-dozen of the 94 ballots Coleman included as part of its list. "Every one of them was rejected for good reason," Beckman said.
• In Stearns County, election chief Walz said more than a dozen ballots Coleman wants reconsidered "were technically deficient without much debate."
• The only county sampled that reported changing its mind was Mower, which decided that signatures for one rejected ballot matched after earlier ruling otherwise. But Auditor-Treasurer Doug Groh defended the rejection of the other ballots.
In most instances, the local elections officials said, the disputed ballots that Coleman wants reviewed involved questions about voter signatures, including mismatches between the signature on an absentee ballot application and on the envelope that contained the ballot.
Knaak insisted that the Coleman campaign would win some of the signature disputes and said county officials were unwilling to reconsider.
"At this point everybody is locked in, it doesn't matter," he said. "We're going to be bringing these things, and the decision is going to be made by the court."
If the disagreements advance to trial, they could force the three judges to act as handwriting experts, a role some local officials have found uncomfortable.
"We're not handwriting experts," said Hennepin County elections chief Jill Alverson, who said changes to state law are needed so that local officials are no longer required to review signature matches.
Carolyn Holmsten, Goodhue County's finance director, agreed. "What's a signature match?" she asked. "How far should you carry [it]?"
The signature issue is part of Coleman's argument that standards for counting ballots were applied inconsistently by local officials.
Lost and found
Two other incidents are sure to be revisited in court.
Minneapolis officials still can't find 133 ballots in the city's Third Ward even though a church and a city warehouse already were searched. In the end, state officials ordered that the tally from Election Day be counted in the final results to avoid disenfranchising 133 voters who cast lawful ballots.
The Coleman campaign said the recount broke with established practice by allowing a single precinct to use its original count rather than a physical recount of ballots.
In Maplewood, 171 votes were found on the last day of recounting in Ramsey County, courtesy of a jammed optical scanner and misplaced absentee ballots.
Coleman attorney Tony Trimble has asserted that county officials had not located voter registration forms for the 171 ballots "allegedly" found in Maplewood's Precinct 6. In a response, Ramsey County's Mansky disputed that.
Throughout the recount ballots went missing and were found. More than 70 turned up in a locked counting machine in a Duluth warehouse. In Olmsted County, write-in ballots were found in a supply box. Other handfuls of missing ballots were reported elsewhere, and while most were resolved, many of those incidents may be reopened.
Another cornerstone of Coleman's suit is his claim that votes were counted twice in 22 precincts statewide, including 17 in Minneapolis. Coleman says the Minneapolis double-counting occurred when a precinct received damaged ballots through the mail and made duplicates that could be fed into voting machines. He says the originals were set aside and later added to the total during the recount.
In one Supreme Court hearing on the issue, several justices said the higher tally in the recount could be explained by reasons other than double-counting. For instance, an election judge may have forgotten to make or enter a duplicate into the voting machine, leaving a lower total on Election Day than in the recount, when the original ballots were counted.
"It was a busy day," Justice Christopher Dietzen remarked, telling a Coleman recount lawyer that he was asking justices "to assume, without any evidentiary support," that duplicates were in fact entered into the machines.
Knaak said the campaign has election judges or other witnesses in Minneapolis precincts who will testify that duplicates were entered into the machines without being marked so they could later be matched up with the originals during the recount.
But Minneapolis election judge Sara Graffunder offered an innocent explanation for one precinct. In an affidavit, she said she found 11 duplicates that officials had forgotten to feed into the machine on Election Day, meaning the higher recount figure was accurate.
Still, Minneapolis elections director Cindy Reichert said in an interview a few weeks ago that election judges made mistakes that prevented assurances that votes weren't counted twice.
"They did make mistakes," she said of election judges.
Reichert declined to talk further about the issue last week.
The Coleman suit also says double-counting occurred in Eagan's Third Precinct. But City Clerk Maria Petersen said she's unaware of any problem. City spokesman Tom Garrison said Eagan officials were "mystified" by the Coleman claim.