After what they said was an exhaustive search of the nooks and crannies of their Northeast warehouse, Minneapolis officials announced Monday that they were abandoning their hunt for 133 missing ballots in the U.S. Senate recount. As they called things off, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman's campaign raised concerns that "political spin" by DFLer Al Franken's camp might be affecting whether the ballots ultimately will be counted.
The issue surfaced last week, when there was a discrepancy between Election Day results and recount totals from a Dinkytown precinct, and officials subsequently went looking for an envelope that they believe holds missing ballots. A decision about whether to count the precinct's votes as tallied on Election Day is likely to be made this week when the state Canvassing Board meets.
The Coleman campaign questioned suspending the search and expressed worry that the Franken campaign may have influenced a suggestion by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie that there is precedent for counting vote totals from Election Day when similar mistakes have occurred.
The Minneapolis precinct is heavily Democratic, and calculations indicate that leaving the missing ballots out of the count could cost Franken a net of 46 votes. That's a potentially important number in a race where Coleman held a 192-vote edge after the recounting, not including several thousand challenged ballots, according to Star Tribune totals. "We've maintained from the beginning of this incident that there should be no rush to judgment on what may have happened," said Coleman spokesman Luke Friedrich.
"The decision by a senior member of the secretary of state's office, as well as the secretary of state himself, to insist there are missing ballots when there are any number of other plausible scenarios is disappointing. With today's news, we would hope further review of these other scenarios will be conducted, rather than just accepting the political spin of the Franken campaign."
Friedrich declined to speculate about whether the campaign might take legal action to force the search to continue. Among the possible other explanations for the discrepancy, Friedrich said, were ballots being counted twice on Election Day and people signing in but leaving without voting.
Fearing the potential loss of votes in the tight race, Franken's campaign had strongly protested the disappearance of the ballots, but it was more low key about the decision to suspend the search.
"While we are disappointed that the envelope containing 133 missing paper ballots have not been found, we take solace in the fact that the voters of this precinct will still have their votes counted, as the secretary of state has said that the canvassed and audited election night results may stand in the absence of these ballots," Franken attorney Marc Elias said in a statement.
A spokesman for the secretary of state's office said the state Canvassing Board will listen to the city's explanation for the loss and decide whether to include the votes.
Some counties balking
Franken's campaign also said that several counties are balking at separating out rejected absentee ballots in the recount, a process the campaign says is necessary to ensure that people who properly cast votes are accurately counted.
The secretary of state's office has asked the counties to sort rejected absentee ballots into five piles: one pile each for the four legal reasons for rejecting a ballot and a fifth for ballots rejected in error or for some other reason.
"Let me be clear, an absentee ballot that was not rejected for one of the four legal reasons is nothing more than an uncounted ballot," Elias said at a news conference. "It is deeply concerning that some counties are refusing to determine whether they have uncounted ballots among their previously rejected absentee ballots."
While Elias refused to name the counties. John Aiken, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office, said at least five -- Ramsey, Washington, Itasca, Freeborn and Sherburne -- have declined to separate their rejected absentee ballots, several on the advice of their attorneys.
Kevin Corbid, director of elections for Washington County, said the county was advised by its attorneys that the sorting might appear to favor one campaign over the other.
"Our attorney's office became more and more concerned about the process we were going to do and the fact it may look like we were picking sides in this ongoing battle. We decided to cancel our review," Corbid said.
The county already had begun the sorting process and will provide an overall number of ballots belonging to the fifth pile to the secretary of state's office, but will not sort the ballots into five categories. The county has about 400 rejected absentee ballots.
An official in Sherburne County said the county declined to participate in the sorting, suggesting the state should do the job, citing the potential cost to local taxpayers.
That issue also is likely to come up Friday when the state Canvassing Board meets. Aiken said the board could use information from the 55 counties and several large cities that have agreed to separate their ballots to determine how large an issue the rejected ballots are.
More challenges pulled
In another development Monday, the Franken campaign said it was pulling back another 425 of the ballots it challenged during the recount, bringing the total it has withdrawn to more than 1,000. The campaign challenged almost 3,300 ballots during the recount of 2.9 million ballots cast in the election, but last week withdrew more than 600.
Coleman's campaign has announced it would give up 650 challenges, leaving 2,750, but indicated it anticipated withdrawing more ballots today.