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In the latest twist in Minnesota's continuing U.S. Senate race, the Al Franken campaign hit Ramsey County with a lawsuit Thursday, seeking the names and addresses of voters whose absentee ballots were rejected.
The DFLer's campaign hopes to force counties across the state to turn over the lists of rejected absentee voters who, if later found eligible, could tip the balance in the closest Senate race in the country. With Republican Sen. Norm Coleman 206 votes ahead of Franken, a hand recount is scheduled to begin next week.
Marc Elias, lead recount attorney for Franken, said that both Ramsey and Hennepin counties had rejected the campaign's request, forcing it to take legal action.
Elias said that because Beltrami County had complied, the campaign had already learned of one woman, an 84-year-old stroke victim, whose absentee ballot was disqualified because her signature no longer matched that on her pre-stroke voter registration card.
"The state may not devise a regime where a woman, because she had a stroke, does not have the right to vote," Elias said at Franken headquarters Thursday morning.
But Beltrami County Auditor Kay Mack later questioned the campaign's account, saying her office hadn't rejected any ballots because of mismatched signatures. Mack said there was one instance of an 87-year-old woman in an assisted living center whose ballot was rejected because it bore no signature or mark. The law, Mack said, is "very clear" about not accepting such ballots.
After being contacted by the Star Tribune with Mack's account, Franken campaign spokesman Andy Barr said Thursday night that there may have been "some confusion about our earlier field report," adding that the campaign is "still digging into the facts." Barr said the issue does not affect the merits of their lawsuit.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said Thursday that the state would not consider rejected absentee ballots as it begins the recount of the 2.9 million votes cast in last week's election. "Recount law is very specific about what is included," Ritchie said. "Under current law, those rejected ballots would be handled by a court."
Meanwhile, Franken scored a gain of one net vote in 196 randomly selected precincts where a hand count of votes was conducted in recent days to test the accuracy of voting machines, according to a Star Tribune calculation. The precinct-by-precinct results, which reduce Coleman's lead from 206 to 205 votes, were posted on the secretary of state's website Thursday night separately from the current unofficial tally. They will be included in the certified totals to be approved on Tuesday by the state Canvassing Board.
If the same rate of change were experienced statewide, the DFLer would gain 21 votes in all. The largest changes came in precincts in St. Louis and Ramsey counties. Most Hennepin County results are not yet in.
Lots of attention, firepower
The race has drawn an influx of money and lawyers who are descending on the state.
Elias said the Franken campaign alone will deploy 1,250 volunteers across the state as part of its recount effort.
Darwin Lookingbill, director of the Ramsey County attorney's civil division, said the law provides access to the list of all those who voted absentee but does not require officials to break the roster down for those who had a ballot rejected.
If a judge were to rule that the lists be made available to the two campaigns, absentee voters might be contacted one by one by the campaigns in an attempt to determine whether the votes should have been counted.
"The only way we can ensure people were not disenfranchised is to check the lists," Elias said.
Elias, who was general counsel to John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, said the Franken campaign would attempt to persuade the state Canvassing Board to count rejected absentee ballots where eligibility has been confirmed.
Coleman camp responds
Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan called the lawsuit "a new low," and said the Franken campaign was "shamelessly trying to strong-arm local officials into counting invalid ballots."
Sheehan said he had "grave concerns" that any release of individual names could lead to "harassment" of voters.
Ritchie said that privacy concerns will surely play into a judge's decision on whether to release such detailed records. "I would hope a judge would have a broad perspective on this," he said.
Minnesota law states that lists of absentee voters cannot be made public before the end of Election Day. Franken's attorneys are arguing that means the data must be made public after that. The law does not specifically address the issue of rejected ballots.
Getting ready to recount
At the secretary of state's office, preparations for the recount continued Thursday. The office provided an online training session for election officials across the state that covered issues ranging from how to organize the recount room to how to sort the ballots.
After the session, Ritchie told a reporter that his office was completely focused on the recount but that he was not surprised to see the fight already taken to court.
"I imagine this is the first of a number of things that fit into the [judicial] contest side," Ritchie said with a sigh. "I think we're seeing that the campaigns are going to push this as far as they can."
Beltrami County Auditor Mack said she was shocked to learn Thursday of the example the Franken campaign held up.
"Beltrami County didn't reject one absentee ballot because signatures didn't match," Mack said. "And we informed them of that." Mack said that of the 1,918 absentee ballots cast in her county, 69 were rejected, some because they had no signature or mark at all.
Mack said she is troubled that Beltrami County was singled out. "We go to a lot of trouble to make sure people who request an absentee ballot get to vote," she said. "It's troubling to me that they're identifying this happened at all when they know we didn't reject anyone for that reason. It makes me think it's not just an accidental report. I mean, look who they picked? They picked someone who would tug at the heartstrings. I'd be outraged, too, if that happened. But it didn't."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288