An uproar Wednesday over 133 mystery ballots that may or may not have disappeared in Minneapolis became the newest controversy to roil the U.S. Senate recount.
At issue was a discrepancy between Election Day and recount totals in one of the city's precincts.
DFLer Al Franken's campaign lodged a protest over 133 votes that it said could not be accounted for during the recount, at a possible cost to him of as many as 46 net votes in his race against Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.
Franken officials sent a letter to the secretary of state's office and Minneapolis elections director Cindy Reichert demanding that the votes from the northeast Minneapolis precinct not be officially reported until a search is conducted for the ballots.
Late Wednesday, Reichert said she had decided to keep the results in the precinct open until all of the discrepancies could be resolved, by reviewing all of the precinct's election materials at City Hall today.
"Several mistakes were made in the precinct and we need to verify all of the numbers we looked at [Wednesday]," she said.
The twist came a day after Franken made a net gain of 37 votes in Ramsey County, when the recount there found that 171 votes from a Maplewood precinct hadn't been tallied on Election Day.
Wednesday evening, a Star Tribune tally showed Coleman with a 316-vote lead, with 98 percent of the vote recounted. At the start of the recount, Coleman had a 215-vote lead.
Earlier in the day, the Franken campaign announced that it was withdrawing 633 of the roughly 3,000 ballot challenges it had made during the recount. The campaign also said that its internal calculations showed it was now ahead of Coleman by 22 votes.
Franken campaign attorney Marc Elias said withdrawing the challenges will not affect the ultimate outcome of the count.
"The only practical impact of what we are doing today is to save the state Canvassing Board the trouble of looking through these challenged ballots and saving the taxpayers of Minnesota the cost of copying and scanning these challenged ballots," Elias said.
Officials for the Coleman campaign, which has made more than 3,200 ballot challenges, said they would hold off on withdrawing any of them until recounting is completed, likely by the end of the week.
A spokesman for Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie called Franken's move a "positive start" but urged both campaigns to be more aggressive in withdrawing frivolous challenges before the Canvassing Board meets on Dec. 16. The board is to make the final call on challenged ballots.
The controversy in the first precinct of Minneapolis' Third Ward began when the recount showed 133 votes fewer than the Election Day count.
Reichert said the disparity sent officials searching for the possibility of a missing ballot envelope. When none could be found, she said, she originally thought that write-in ballots at the precinct, which were diverted on the side of the ballot box on Election Day, may have been fed through the ballot counter twice on Nov. 4.
The city initially decided to pare the precinct vote totals by 133, with Franken's number dropping by 80 and Coleman's by 34, a 46-vote swing in the senator's favor.
"That was the theory [about the discrepancy] we developed in the afternoon, but the theory we came up with doesn't jibe with the numbers we have," Reichert said. "We don't know what happened. ... It looks like that wasn't valid speculation."
Among other things, elections workers will examine voter rosters, signatures and voter registration rolls, she said.
The Franken campaign said numbers from the precinct had shown that 2,029 people voted on Election Day and that the recount recorded only 1,896 ballots.
Franken attorney David Lillihaug asked that the recount in Minneapolis be kept open until the ballots are found. Citing 133 "disenfranchised voters in Minneapolis who are waiting for action," he wrote, "the U.S. Senate race may hang in the balance."
In a statement, Coleman campaign spokesman Mark Drake said, "The Minneapolis officials appeared to be quite thorough in their search today, and it is disappointing that the Franken campaign, once again, is attacking local election officials and blaming them for simply doing their jobs."
Fritz Knaak, Coleman's lead recount attorney, while acknowledging the Franken campaign's challenge withdrawals, suggested the announcement may have been an attempt to "create news" and keep momentum to help with political fundraising. Knaak said the announcement also may have been timed to deflect the effect of the reelection Tuesday of U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, a result that prevents Democrats from gaining a 60-vote, filibuster-proof Senate majority.
Chambliss' victory, said Knaak, had dealt "a serious blow" to Franken's attempt to show his race is critical to Democrats nationally. Franken's people said Chamblis' reelection will have no effect on strategy for the Minnesota race.
"It's nonsensical. There was a Senate election in Georgia. The results were what they were," said Franken attorney Elias. "We're trying to figure out who won the election in Minnesota. From my standpoint, there's no obvious connection between the two."
About the gap
Regarding the gap between the candidates, Franken officials said Wednesday afternoon that, by their internal calculations, their campaign had gained 237 votes in the recount with 94.3 percent of the votes counted and claimed to be ahead by 22 votes.
Elias said the calculation is based on the working theory that none of either campaign's challenges will be upheld and that Coleman has challenged more ballots than Franken.
Knaak dismissed the assertion Franken had pulled ahead.
In joking with reporters --and taking a jab at the Franken campaign's counting methodology -- Knaak said he thought Coleman was ahead by 2,200 votes. "I have no evidence of this," he said, smiling, " ... but I like the sound of it, so there it is."
He said, however, that the Coleman campaign was confident. "We believe we're well ahead in this recount," he said.
Meanwhile, election officials Wednesday also began grappling with a request by Ritchie's office to examine and categorize rejected absentee ballots.
John Aiken, a secretary of state spokesman, said counties were notifying the office Wednesday that they intended to follow the instructions.
Staff writer Curt Brown contributed to this report.
These numbers do not yet reflect the Franken campaign's announcement that it is withdrawing 633 ballot challenges.