Democrat Al Franken picked up several hundred votes at Thursday's state Canvassing Board meeting, all but erasing the narrow unofficial lead that Republican Sen. Norm Coleman has maintained for weeks. The DFLer seemed poised to move ahead today, at least temporarily, as the board rules on more challenged ballots.

Franken also appeared ready to beat back another challenge, as board members appeared skeptical about the Coleman team's proposal for preventing ballots from being counted twice. Talking about instances when a ballot couldn't be run through a voting machine, requiring a duplicate to be made, the Coleman campaign said the ballot should be counted only if an original could be matched with its copy.

The question of whether to count those ballots will be the first thing the board addresses this morning, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said. The panel will work into the evening if necessary to finish up with remaining challenges, he said.

On the third day of its recount review, the five Canvassing Board members dealt with 642 ballot challenges made by the Coleman camp, helped by the last-minute withdrawal of some 400 by the campaign.

Franken's surge Thursday was no real surprise, given that the large majority of ballot challenges typically fail. On the previous two days, when the board examined challenges from the Franken campaign, most were rejected and Coleman made gains.

Thousands of challenges previously withdrawn by the campaigns have yet to be added back into their opponents' columns and will affect the margin in ways that can't yet be determined.

But Marc Elias, Franken's lead recount attorney, said that more of their side's challenges were being upheld than Coleman's, and he said: "When the recount is over and all the votes that were legally cast are counted, Al Franken will have won this election and will be declared the winner."

Elias claimed that signs pointing to an eventual Franken win had "panicked" the Coleman team into going to court to try to stop the counting of improperly rejected absentee ballots and asking the Canvassing Board not to count 150 ballots the senator's campaign claim were duplicated.

"There is a systematic effort by the Coleman campaign to prevent all the votes from being counted, for one reason and one reason only -- which is that they know that they are lying and that if all the votes are counted, they will lose this election," Elias said.

Responded Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak: "Mr. Elias has cast aspersions on our intentions from the beginning ... I understand his need to do that. That is not the case."

Questioning duplicates

Coleman attorney Tony Trimble said precinct reports show that in 150 cases -- about 100 of them in Minneapolis, DFL turf that Franken won handily -- original ballots were separated from duplicates, leaving both ballots in the mix and leading to a single vote being counted twice.

Canvassing Board members quizzed both campaigns on Coleman's request to count only those original ballots for which a duplicate can be found. The Franken campaign says there were no double votes and that all ballots should be counted.

Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, one of the board members, said he believed that meeting the Coleman request would require the board to examine voting machine tapes to determine which ballots may have been double counted, the kind of exercise that he said was beyond the board's administrative authority.

Trimble disagreed, saying that all the board would need to do is take note of those ballots marked as originals that were without a matching duplicate.

Justice G. Barry Anderson said he thought it "a dead solid certainty" that double votes were counted, but added he was uncertain that the board had the authority to do what Trimble asked. District Judge Edward Cleary took issue with Anderson, calling the certainty of double votes "a large leap."

The 'Lizard People'

The board clipped along at a rapid pace in its review of challenged ballots, aided by the withdrawal of challenges, but more time was needed for the study a handful of quizzical ballots, leading to some lighter moments.

One Bemidji voter blackened the oval for Franken, but also put an X through the oval and scribbled "Lizard People" on the write-in line.

" 'Lizard People' is not a genuine write-in" because there's no such person, Elias said.

"You don't know that there's not someone named 'Lizard People.' You don't," Magnuson said.

"You're right, you don't know," Trimble chimed in.

"Isn't 'People' plural? How can you have an individual named 'People?' " asked Ramsey County District Judge Edward Cleary, a board member.

After more back and forth, the board finally sided with Trimble and ruled it an overvote, not a vote for Franken.

Franken did better on a Sauk Rapids ballot that was marked for him but had "Flying Spaghetti Monster" and "FSM" written in other places. He also won a challenge on a Mankato ballot on which the voter had blackened his oval but extended his name to read "Al Frankenstin."

Trimble argued that the voter hadn't cast his vote for Franken, but for someone named Frankenstin. "The candidate is still identified as the candidate of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party," Elias countered. The board voted 3-2 to award the vote to Franken.

Coleman lawyers sought to downplay the surge of Franken votes. Once all withdrawn challenges are factored in, they said, the senator will be ahead. • 651-292-0164