Next Senate hurdle is count of 1,350 absentee ballots

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 28, 2008 - 11:15 PM

Campaigns to argue about how many of the ballots will be opened and counted. Expert expects more delays.

Preparing for their next round of battling ballots this week, campaign workers in the unresolved U.S. Senate race spent the weekend poring over a list of about 1,350 rejected absentee ballots and preparing their arguments about whether each one should be counted after all.

The ballots on the list -- all of which are still unopened -- could weigh heavily in the race, which unofficially has DFLer Al Franken leading incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican, by 46 votes.

Last week, local elections officials identified the 1,350 ballots as improperly rejected. But each campaign must agree with that assessment before they can be sent to the secretary of state's office Jan. 2 to be counted, under a state Supreme Court order on Dec. 18.

Franken sent the Coleman campaign a letter Saturday proposing to accept all the ballots on the list and forgo any additions to the list "in the interests of avoiding further disputes and ensuring that votes are counted."

Coleman spokesman Mark Drake called the Franken campaign proposal not credible, not in good faith and not serious. "We agreed that there would be a certain process, and the Franken campaign is not interested in following that process," Drake said Sunday.

Campaign representatives are likely to hash over the list at 12 regional meetings scheduled throughout the state on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.

What, exactly, will happen at those meetings is unclear and partly up to the campaigns, said Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

"This is not that complicated," Ritchie said. "These are 1,300-some wrongly rejected ballots that local election officials have identified. The campaigns have identified others that they think were also wrongly rejected, so the local election official has to examine those potential additions and see if they agree, and then the campaigns and local elections officials have to agree on the list ... and send them in."

Though campaign officials don't know for whom the absentee votes were cast, some observers say the list includes ballots from precincts leaning Democratic, presumably helping -- or at least not hurting -- Franken's narrow lead.

Hamline University Prof. David Schultz, who teaches election law, said Coleman's campaign probably will argue that many of the absentee votes were in fact correctly rejected.

As for those that do get counted?

"My guess is actually once they open some of them, they may have the problem that they've had with every other ballot: There may be some of them that they can't figure out the intent of the voter," Schultz said. "You know, somebody else decides to vote for Nine Inch Nails or something like that."

Voters whose ballots are not accepted by one or both candidates will be notified that a candidate blocked them and that they can appeal in court.

The rejected absentees aren't the only ballots that will be considered this week. On Tuesday, the state Canvassing Board will also allocate votes from withdrawn ballot challenges.

That won't likely mean the end of it, though, with possible court challenges ahead.

"I can see this dragging out several weeks into January and perhaps into February, if not longer," Schultz said.

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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