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ST. PAUL, Minn. - A three-judge panel begins hearing arguments Monday in Norm Coleman's lawsuit over the result of Minnesota's U.S. Senate recount. Some questions and answers about the legal proceeding:
Q. It's been 2 1/2 months since the election. Why hasn't this been settled yet?
A. When all the ballots were counted after Election Day, Republican Norm Coleman led Democrat Al Franken by 215 votes out of about 2.9 million cast. That lead was small enough to automatically trigger a statewide recount, which took more than a month. Throughout that process, both campaigns were allowed to make legal arguments in favor of accepting or rejecting certain ballots or groups of ballots. At the end of the recount, Franken moved ahead by 225 votes. But state law allowed Coleman to file what's called an "election contest" — a lawsuit — over the issues that came up during the recount.
Q. So exactly why is Coleman suing?
A. The Republican faces losing the Senate seat he held the last six years, and believes he is the rightful winner. He says Franken leads only because of irregularities in the vote count and inconsistent standards for accepting absentee ballots. Coleman is arguing that as many as 5,000 rejected absentees should be added to the count. Another central claim is that election officials in some precincts counted some votes twice because they didn't properly mark duplicates made of some damaged ballots.
Q. Who will decide the case?
A. Three district court judges appointed by Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page. They are Elizabeth Hayden of Stearns County, Kurt Marben of Pennington County and Denise Reilly of Hennepin County.
Q. What are the chances Coleman will win?
A. Most neutral experts believe he has "an uphill battle," to quote Ned Foley, an Ohio State University political scientist who's been closely watching the contest. Like any plaintiff in a civil case, Coleman bears the burden of proof — his lawyers must convince the judges that the mistakes and inconsistencies he's claiming really happened. Even if they're successful on that count, Coleman has to make up enough votes to overtake Franken. Even Coleman's lawyers have acknowledged that if their alleged mistakes are corrected, Franken would gain some votes too.
Q. How long is this all going to take?
A. Hard to say. It depends on how much evidence the judges allow to be presented, and that could be a lot. For example, Coleman claims that several thousand rejected absentee ballots should be inspected to see if they were rejected legally. The judges could even order a second statewide recount.
Q. Once this trial is over, is that it? Will Minnesota have a new senator?
A. Not necessarily. The loser can appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Or a federal court. If Franken loses, he might appeal to the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate, which federal law says gets the final call on its members.
Q. Will Coleman and Franken be there for the trial? What are they doing while this plays out?
A. They're not expected to be there. They'll be represented by teams made up of Minnesota legal heavyweights and election-law pros from around the country. Franken is trying to get an election certificate to allow him to at least temporarily join the Senate. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie both refused that request, so in a separate legal proceeding Franken is asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to order them to issue it. Coleman's Senate term expired several weeks ago, and he's been hired as a consultant by the Republican Jewish Coalition — a job he hopes is temporary.