There are scribbles. There are check-offs and cross-outs. There are self-drawn ovals. There are ballots left completely blank. There are arrows sketched in by voters who apparently miss an older form of ballot. And, occasionally, there is commentary, like the voter who scrawled "GOD!!!" above the names of Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and his Democratic challenger, Al Franken.

Such artistic and literary voting quirks are all part of the universe of challenged ballots in the U.S. Senate recount -- a number that is closing in on 6,000.

The disputed ballots will end up in the laps of members of the state Canvassing Board next month, and it will be up to them to rule on whether each ballot should be counted for Franken, for Coleman -- or neither.

A sneak preview of sorts is available, now that the secretary of state's office has begun releasing copies of the ballots. And using state election law as a guide, it's possible to sort through the actual ballots yourself and get a general idea of the job facing the board members.

The Star Tribune has created a website where readers can study hundreds of the ballots and make their own decisions on them at More will be added as the secretary of state releases them.

As of midday Friday, 7,241 computer users had evaluated some part of a random sample of 601 of the ballots, with each ballot judged by hundreds of readers. Their review showed that the candidates fare about equally well, that the great number of ballots are clearly marked enough to award to one or the other and that the number of ballots that can't be assigned to a candidate is relatively small.

For example, the readers awarded Coleman 260 of the ballots and Franken 249. On the large majority of the ballots, nearly all of the readers agreed on the outcome.

In 90 cases, a majority of the users denied the vote to both candidates.

The users' judgments show that in most cases the voter's intent is clear (the guiding principle of the law), even if the oval printed on the ballot isn't perfectly filled in. For example, an X alongside Coleman's or Franken's name would count.

The relatively small percentage of the ballots that appear likely to be tossed out occurs because a voter voted for both candidates, or neither, because it's impossible to puzzle out the voter's intent, or "an identifying mark" (such as "GOD!!!") has been written on the ballot.

After examining some of the ballots, Kathryn Pearson, who teaches political science at the University of Minnesota, pronounced many of the challenges as "just bizarre."

"Some of these challenges are so ridiculous, because the voter's intent is so clear," she said. "I mean, challenge just because most of the oval wasn't filled in? I'm pretty certain most of these will be counted."

A problem emerges, she said, in cases where both the Coleman and Franken ovals have been filled in by a voter -- who also draws an "X" through one of the ovals.

"It's tricky trying to figure out what that voter really means -- is it canceling out the vote with an X, or is trying to emphasize it?" Pearson said.

And reasonable people can disagree about a voter's intent, Pearson discovered when she flashed images of challenged ballots on a screen in one of her classrooms. "On some, the class was divided because the voter's intent wasn't clear to them," she said. "There wasn't complete unanimity. But it's an interesting game to play."

An arms race?

The random examination of ballots makes it impossible to draw firm conclusions about which candidate will fare batter in the battle of the challenged ballots.

But Coleman campaign spokesman Mark Drake predicted the reexamination of these ballots "will be a wash." A Franken spokeswoman didn't return a call seeking comment.

Both campaigns have said they'll attempt to whittle down their pile of challenges, withdrawing ones where the voter seems to have clearly intended to vote for one of the candidates.

That would be a reversal of the trend so far, which Pearson characterized as "an arms race."

"It won't affect the eventual outcome, but it's a PR game that affects the day-to-day [news] coverage," she said. "Once one side starts making frivolous challenges, the other is motivated to do the same and it turns into an arms race of both sides trying to suppress the other's totals."

In that light, a Coleman volunteer in McLeod County challenged a ballot that had apparently been clearly marked for Franken. The reason the election official wrote on the ballot:

"Frivolous challenge." • 612-673-7184 • 612-673-7192