Minnesotans finding diversion from winter in the tumultuous U.S. Senate race got indications Wednesday that the battle could rage until spring, unless Republican Norm Coleman sees his hopes flagging.
In the first sign that Coleman might cut short his challenge of the Senate recount, his campaign proposed that his lawsuit be conducted in stages. The proceedings would continue through all the stages only if he gains enough votes to show he could emerge the winner.
In a court filing, Coleman's lawyers suggested that the trial's first phase begin Feb. 9. The campaign downplayed the significance of the announcement and did not elaborate on how many votes Coleman would have to gain during each stage in order to proceed.
In another development Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court said it would not hear arguments until Feb. 5 on Democrat Al Franken's request to be certified the winner so he could be seated in the Senate. The Coleman campaign characterized the decision as evidence that the high court was in no hurry to enable Franken to be seated. "The wheels are coming off the Franken campaign's 'victory train,'" said Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak.
Franken had begun the week by asking Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to issue him an election certificate, in light of the 225-vote lead he held after the state Canvassing Board certified the recount results on Jan. 5. When they both declined, citing Coleman's pending legal challenge, Franken's attorneys asked the Supreme Court to decide the issue.
In its filing discussing how Coleman's election challenge might proceed, his campaign proposed a trial schedule that would have five stages, with the final stage beginning Feb. 23. The campaign also called for a potential sweeping reexamination of virtually every ballot cast in the Nov. 4 election.
The campaign asked the three-judge panel that will preside to start by examining mistakenly rejected absentee ballots. The ballots were a major point of controversy during the recount, and the category is one that could offer an early clue whether Coleman's challenge can succeed.
His campaign has insisted that, in addition to hundreds of rejected ballots that were reviewed during the recount, more than 600 others should have been checked for possible inclusion.
Speaking to reporters, Knaak predicted that Coleman would emerge as the eventual winner. "Al Franken has not won this election," he said. The campaign said that depositions -- statements taken under oath from potential witnesses in the trial -- would begin today.
Coleman's proposed schedule included the caveat that "subsequent stages of the trial" would only be necessary "in the event the prior stage results in a sufficient number of votes being added" to his totals. That seems to leave open the possibility of his ending the challenge if he doesn't gain a certain number of votes from the absentee and mail ballot disputes.
Coleman spokesman Mark Drake suggested otherwise. "We are not looking for a projected number of votes," he said. "We believe each phase is dependent on the next phase to ensure that a final, accurate and valid number is provided to declare a winner.
"For purposes of clarity for the courts, we proposed that this contest proceed in stages, but the ultimate goal is to ensure that each and every valid vote is counted and that the final number is accurate and complete," he added.
A spokesman for Franken said Wednesday that the language in the proposal was "really interesting," but that the campaign would have no further comment for now.
Coleman's proposed schedule provides for a hearing Jan. 21, next Wednesday, on a motion by Franken to dismiss the Republican's lawsuit.
If the suit survives that and other preliminary challenges, trial would begin the second week of February, with the initial focus on the rejected absentee ballots. Starting Feb. 16, the trial would take up Coleman's claim that votes in 22 precincts -- mostly in Minneapolis -- were counted twice, as well as his argument that a ruling on missing ballots in another precinct inflated Franken's lead. The final stage of the trial would start Feb. 23 and deal with voter intent on ambiguous ballots.
"We're just suggesting a possible procedure that has, you know, a good flow to it," said Coleman attorney Tony Trimble.
GOP activists weigh in
Trimble's comments came as a group of Republican activists said Wednesday that it would ask to legally join Coleman's contest to eliminate the possibility of double counting of votes. While the group presented little concrete evidence of double-counting at a news conference, lawyer Doug Seaton said there "could be hundreds" of such votes across the state.
"My vote was disenfranchised" because of double-counting, said Scott Walker, a GOP activist from St. Paul. "I am furious about that."
Michael Brodkorb, a prominent Republican Internet blogger, agreed. "I can't change the fact that I'm a partisan Republican," he said. "This really has nothing to do with partisan politics. It's about preserving the concept of one person, one vote."
The group also unveiled a website to enlist support from others and invited Democrats and independents to join them in the interest of fairness. firstname.lastname@example.org • 612-673-4388 email@example.com •651-222-1210