Challenged ballots may offer the Senate challenger a path to overtaking Coleman, but numbers indicate it would be a tough route.
While a tiny margin separates the candidates in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race, it is wide enough that Democrat Al Franken faces a daunting task in challenging votes to erase Sen. Norm Coleman's lead.
The two sides have disputed thousands of the other's votes, but many of those challenges are regarded by experts as frivolous.
To win his case before the state Canvassing Board, Franken must prevail on more than 6 percent of his challenges of Coleman votes even if Coleman fails to succeed on any of his challenges, a Star Tribune analysis shows.
If the outcome of past election disputes provides a clue, Franken will have a hard time reversing enough votes to win, said one veteran elections official who has been involved in the Senate recount.
"Based upon the kinds of challenges I've been looking at in the last two weeks, I think that's just not going to happen," said Joe Mansky, Ramsey County elections manager.
Franken's campaign said Friday that the gap between the candidates isn't as wide as it appears and expressed confidence that his challenges would prove generally more meritorious than Coleman's.
But Mansky said earlier that Franken has a better chance of winning by suing to force the counting of absentee ballots that the Democrat contends were mistakenly rejected.
"Franken's best [and perhaps his only] chance will be in court, not with the recount," Mansky said.
The Canvassing Board last week denied a Franken request that it reconsider all rejected absentee ballots, but left open the possibility of taking up some on a case-by-case basis. The board indicated that it expects the issue to wind up in court.
Franken's campaign has indicated that it might sue or take its case to the U.S. Senate, which can decide such disputes and is led by Democrats.
Looking at the gap
Coleman began the recount with a 215-vote lead; it has fluctuated since then and stood at 282 before election officials took a Thanksgiving holiday break from the recount. During the review, the two campaigns have challenged a total of more than 5,600 ballots.
Franken's campaign had a more optimistic view Friday of the gap between the candidates and of his prospects.
"The race right now is at 73 votes," said Marc Elias, Franken's lead recount attorney.
Elias' calculation is based in part on the assumption that challenges are typically not sustained and that therefore Coleman's lead is inflated because his side has filed more challenges than Franken's -- 147 more, according to the Star Tribune analysis.
Moreover, Elias predicts that the gap also will narrow because the recount has so far covered slightly more Republican precincts than Democratic.
"There is more blue left to be counted than there is red left to be counted," he said. About 14 percent of ballots have not been recounted, according to the secretary of state's office.
Coleman's campaign issued a statement Friday saying the outcome of the dispute "isn't about matrices, lawsuits or U.S. Senate intervention. This is about the recounting of ballots legally cast by Minnesotans, and we are confident Senator Coleman will be reelected."
The Star Tribune analysis showed that Franken could win the election by 26 votes by prevailing on 7 percent of his challenges of Coleman votes, provided that Coleman won none of his challenges of Franken votes.
Franken would have to climb a higher hill if Coleman were to win some of his challenges. If the incumbent won as few as 5 percent of his challenges of Franken votes, Franken would need to win more than 11 percent of his.
Mansky said past election disputes demonstrated that rival challenges tend to cancel each other out, or to be too small in number to change the outcome. He also said arbitrators will be very reluctant to nullify a vote if they can discern intent.
In 1986, former state Sen. Collin Peterson, now a Democratic U.S. congressman, lost a U.S. House election to Republican Rep. Arlan Stangeland by 121 votes.
Checks and X's
Peterson's lawyer argued that more than 100 Stangeland ballots should not be counted because they were cast by voters who began voting with a check mark and then tried to make an "X" out of the check. He said the law required that marks be uniform.
But Stangeland's lawyer argued that there was no question about the voter's intent, and a judge ruled for Stangeland, increasing his lead. Peterson conceded shortly afterward.
Similar challenges will likely be made in the Senate race, Mansky said. For instance, he said there have been numerous challenges in Ramsey County of votes cast by people who wrote in a candidate's name rather than filled in the oval next to it.
"Those challenges are going nowhere because you have a right to cast write-in votes," he said.
Yet the challenges hold enough questions to defy easy predictions on who will benefit the most.
One wild card is how many challenges involve votes cast for Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley and how they might effect the outcome.
Questions, and more questions
"The hurdle here is that we know nothing about the challenges," said Prof. Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. "We know that many will be put aside by mutual consent as false challenges by over-eager campaign observers. But [were] Coleman or Franken campaign volunteers more prone to make weak challenges? Do we know anything regarding any initial indication by the election worker?"
He said there is hope for Franken in areas where disputes have a potential to swing in his favor.
Jacobs noted that 356 ballots were challenged in St. Louis County, which tilts Democratic and relies heavily on counting ballots by hand. Hand-counted ballots are particularly vulnerable to mistakes.
"If the hand ballots are a focal point of dispute at the state Canvassing Board, they may tilt in Franken's direction given his 23-point margin of victory in St. Louis County," Jacobs wrote in a report last week.
Still, he added in an e-mail, "It's hard to see how Franken can win without doing better (and actually well) in Hennepin and St. Louis" counties.