Senate recount: Trying to fill in the ovals

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE, MIKE KASZUBA and BOB VON STERNBERG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 17, 2008 - 5:47 AM

"Can I just say, it felt really good to get started on this?" Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin said as the canvassing began. Others had to agree.

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Gary Poser, director of elections, right, approaches members of the State Canvassing Board with the original of a challenged ballot. The challenge was rejected and the vote went to Sen. Norm Coleman. Canvassing board members, from left: Eric J. Magnuson, Mark Ritchie, G. Barry Anderson and Edward J. Cleary.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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At this rate, Minnesota's U.S. Senate recount will never end.

More ballot challenges were added to the recount Tuesday than were resolved by the state Canvassing Board.

"We're at the mercy of the campaigns," a slightly weary Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said, after asking whether there wasn't some kind of deadline to raise challenges.

His comments came as the board took the first steps in its Sisyphian trek through 1,500 challenged ballots in the disputed race between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken. The five-member panel ruled on about 160 challenges made by Franken's campaign -- with most of the votes awarded to Coleman, as expected -- only to learn at day's end that the Coleman campaign planned to restore 200-odd withdrawn challenges to its stack of around 1,000.

The review itself offered an often tedious but sometimes eye-opening look at democracy. It took place in the basement of the State Office Building in St. Paul, in a hearing room full of reporters and lawyers for the campaigns.

Election officials began the review by taking up ballots challenged by Franken. The Democrat went into the meeting with 441 active challenges, after withdrawing a large number in the past 10 days, plus 339 possible challenges based on incidents at the polls that the campaign says may have verged on tampering.

The day's results: Coleman added 98 votes and Franken 22, while 41 were ruled out for either side.

The board has yet to dive into challenges made by the Coleman campaign, which numbered roughly 1,000 before the word that it planned to restore about 200 of those it had previously withdrawn.

Upheld challenges

Although an official number of upheld challenges wasn't available, it appeared that rate was relatively high, given that many experts consider sustained challenges to be rare. Franken's 22-vote pickup reflected a degree of success for him, and at least some of the 41 votes awarded to neither candidate were ones that would have gone to Coleman.

But it was impossible to say whether the day's events favored either candidate. That's because the board reviewed challenges coming only from Franken.

There is no way to know whether Coleman's challenges will be upheld as often as or less frequently than Franken's.

"Given the fact that they're fairly early in the game, it might be best to wait until they're completely done" before speculating on who's getting the advantage, said Ramsey County elections director Joe Mansky.

Because nearly all the challenges reviewed Tuesday came from Franken, most involved votes that had initially been awarded to Coleman.

So rejected challenges for the most part gave votes to Coleman that he had already won; the same seems likely to happen for Franken when the Coleman challenges are taken up by the board.

Board disappointed

Despite the hundreds of challenges withdrawn by both campaigns in recent days, board members were clearly disappointed that many of the ballots they examined Tuesday were so-called "frivolous" challenges where the voter's intent was clear.

They urged both campaigns to continue to weed out challenges, especially when Coleman recount attorney Tony Trimble told them that the campaign would be restoring some challenges now that it knows the board's standards.

Marc Elias, the lead recount attorney for Franken, said that his campaign also will be reviewing ballots to possibly add to their challenge stack, although he also said they wouldn't be adding as many as the Coleman campaign.

"We learned a little bit about how [board members are] going to call balls and strikes, and we'll adjust accordingly," Elias said.

Starting off

The first ballot looked at, from an Andover precinct in Anoka County, was similar to many of those examined Tuesday: it showed marks in the ovals for both Franken and Coleman, but a more irregular one in Franken's. The board awarded the vote to Coleman.

"Can I just say, it felt really good to get started on this?" Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin said.

"Yes, ma'am," Ritchie said.

Another ballot stalled things when the mark appeared to land precisely between the ovals for Coleman and Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley. The divided board voted to add it to the "other" pile.

"Clearly, this voter was challenged ... this is the only vote [on the ballot] that straddles two candidates," Ramsey County District Court Judge Ed Cleary said.

As the afternoon progressed, the board's standards for judging similarly marked ballots emerged. Board members said their measure was the state law that says the voter's intent rules if it can be reasonably determined.

The board generally awarded votes to the candidate when there was a fully blackened oval even if his opponent's oval contained some markings, the idea being that those voters had mistakenly begun to fill in one oval before correcting themselves.

On the other hand, stray marks surrounding a blackened oval generally convinced the board that the voter's intent was unclear.

And the board generally accepted votes that were accompanied by the voter's initials as an indication of what they intended, even though identifying marks on a ballots often are regarded as grounds for rejection.

Ritchie said he was happy with the pace the board achieved as the day wore on, and the standards it developed to divine voter intent among the smudged ovals, X-marks and abstract scribbles that often marked the most inscrutable ballots.

"I was really very gratified by how smart and practical and careful everyone was on the canvassing board. ... It was pretty darn smooth," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. kduchschere@startribune.com 651-292-0164 mkaszuba@startribune.com 651-222-1673 vonste@startribune.com 612-673-7184

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