The long-running Senate election trial is about to reach another milestone.
DFLer Al Franken expects to call his final witnesses today, and his lawyers are proclaiming they are confident that they will have proved their case.
"We feel good about how our case went, feel good about how we came in leading, and we think we have put into evidence a strong case," lead lawyer Marc Elias said Tuesday. "We're not there yet ... but we're ending what has been a very long postelection process."
Almost. After Franken rests the bulk of his case, a small group of voters who were not represented by him or by Republican Norm Coleman will have their chance to argue that their absentee ballots were wrongly rejected. After that, Coleman and Franken will have opportunities for rebuttals to the other side, followed by closing arguments.
But Tuesday's announcement from the Franken campaign opens the possibility that the trial could end soon and perhaps go to three-judge panel as early as next week.
Coleman, who challenged the election recount that ended with Franken holding a 225-vote lead, has the burden of proving that he, not Franken, is the rightful winner, and his side took more than five weeks to present its case. If Franken's side wraps up its case today, it will have taken only seven days.
Franken has called 73 witnesses, 62 of them voters whose absentee ballots were rejected and that Franken wants reconsidered. Some of the voters he plans to call today are braving a snowstorm in western Minnesota to come to St. Paul and testify.
Coleman legal spokesman Ben Ginsberg said Tuesday that he'll wait until Franken's case is finished before commenting on it, but said he saw fodder for rebuttal. "I think there were a lot of subjects that were raised in the Franken case that we have the opportunity to follow up on," Ginsberg said.
Other Coleman backers were more outspoken. Franken, who was in Washington, said Tuesday that he saw "the light at the end of the tunnel," to which Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan responded: "Al Franken doesn't know the difference between a light in the tunnel and the freight train that is coming right at him. The freight train is coming, and it's Senator Norm Coleman being reelected to the United States Senate."
Since the trial began Jan. 26, Coleman has sought to show that thousands of absentee ballots were wrongly rejected and should now be counted, as he tries to make up his deficit.
After citing 4,800 such ballots early in the trial, his lawyers last week put the figure at 1,725. But that was based partly on the expectation that an inspection of hundreds of secrecy envelopes holding rejected ballots would yield many more votes; as it turned out, officials identified only 89 that held valid registrations and might ultimately be counted. Asked whether the number of ballots Coleman wants to count would be closer to 1,000 or 1,725, Ginsberg replied, "I think it will be right in the middle."
Franken, meanwhile, has identified 804 rejected absentee ballots that he said should be considered for counting.
In Washington on Tuesday, Franken briefed Democratic senators, where he made his light-at-the-end-of-tunnel remarks. "I believe that we're going to win the election contest, and after that Senator Coleman can choose to do what he wants," Franken said.
Franken said he expects Coleman to appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court should he lose the election trial. "If [the Supreme Court justices] rule in our favor, then I imagine I'll be certified and then it won't be very controversial that I'm seated," Franken said.
Asked if the Senate would try to seat him before Coleman's appeals are exhausted, Franken said, "I don't know, but I don't think so."
The three judges are mulling a major decision on a bid by Franken to dismiss all or part of Coleman's claims. They have not said when they will rule.
At Tuesday's trial session, the focus again was on rejected absentee ballots as lawyers on both sides quizzed voters and election officials about secrecy envelopes, voter signatures and address shifts within the same apartment building.