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Sen. Norm Coleman's narrow lead over DFL challenger Al Franken in the U.S. Senate race narrowed even more Wednesday, guaranteeing a recount that would be the state's biggest ever and could stretch well into next month.
Coleman declared victory Wednesday morning, when his unofficial lead over Franken stood at 725 votes out of nearly 2.9 million cast, according to the secretary of state's tally. By the end of the day, as county officials from around the state forwarded adjusted figures to the state, that margin had shrunk to 477 votes, and Thursday morning it shrank further, to 438 votes.
Early Wednesday, Franken announced his support for a recount, which would be automatic because of the closeness of the vote. He said that his campaign was investigating alleged voting irregularities at some polling places in Minneapolis and that "a recount could change the outcome significantly."
"Let me be clear: Our goal is to ensure that every vote is properly counted," he said.
The standoff promised to throw the already long and bitterly contested race into overtime, where the main players will be canvassers and lawyers. The recount involves examining every ballot by hand.
Recounts are required in races with a winning margin of less than one-half of 1 percent, although a losing candidate may request that it not go forward. Coleman and Franken each received 42 percent of the vote, and Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley got 15 percent.
A few hours after Franken spoke, Coleman went before relatives, friends and supporters at his campaign headquarters in St. Paul to say he was "humbled and grateful for the victory that the voters gave us last night." His campaign website flashed the word "VICTORY."
Coleman urged Franken to waive his right to a recount, saying that the prospect of changing the result was remote and that a recount would be costly to taxpayers (about $86,000).
"I just think the need for the healing process is so important. ... hopefully, you don't have TV ads during an election recount," Coleman said.
Franken, who was unavailable for interviews Wednesday, gave no hint that he would follow Coleman's suggestion.
The Senate race was so tight Wednesday that the Associated Press declared Coleman the winner before 7 a.m. and two hours later withdrew its declaration, saying that it had been premature.
Also Wednesday, a blog reported allegations that a Somali campaign worker for Coleman had been encouraging Somali voters at a polling place to back the senator. Coleman campaign officials said that the worker was there as an interpreter and not on behalf of the campaign, and he denied telling voters how to cast their ballot.
In a news briefing Wednesday, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a DFLer, said that a recount wouldn't begin until mid-November at the earliest and would probably stretch into December. It would involve local election officials from around the state.
"No matter how fast people would like it, the emphasis is on accuracy," Ritchie said.
Ritchie's office ran a September recount of a close primary race for a Supreme Court seat in just three days, but he said the Senate race is entirely different.
"Having a ton of lawyers and other partisans injected into the process, that will change the dynamics of it," Ritchie said.
The scope of that recount was also substantially smaller, with somewhat more than 300,000 votes cast in that race.
Former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger, who has been involved in recounts during his career in private practice, described a grueling process for observers. You "stand or sit or put your foot on a chair," he said. "You're all huddled over this one document, one at a time. It's a lot of work."
After the state Canvassing Board meets on Nov. 18 to certify unofficial election results, the recount process would begin Nov. 19, Ritchie said. At nearly 100 county and city election offices across the state, an appointed recount auditor will examine each ballot by hand to determine the voter's intent. With representatives from each candidate looking on, auditors will sort each ballot into the proper stack.
According to the 2008 Recount Guide put out by Ritchie's office, "a ballot or vote must not be rejected for a technicality if it is possible to decide what the voter intended, even though the voter may have made a mistake or the ballot is damaged."
According to a KARE-TV report, it's conceivable that up to 6,000 Senate votes might have been missed by the optical-scan machines because they weren't properly marked. The report cited Ramsey County elections chief Joe Mansky as saying that as many as two in 1,000 ballots might be so "spoiled" in a given election. If the intent was clear, those votes would be counted in a hand count, he said.
It all harkens back to the 2000 presidential race and hanging chads in Florida, said David Schultz, a Hamline University professor who teaches an election law class. Schultz said case law has established Minnesota's tradition of not penalizing voters for failing to fill out ballots properly if their intent can be determined.
If campaign observers challenge the recount auditor's decision and there's no agreement on whom the voter picked, the disputed ballots are sent to the five-member state Canvassing Board, which will include Ricchie, two state Supreme Court justices and two Ramsey County district court judges. That group will vote on any disputes and come up with the official totals for each candidate.
Former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug, who has acted as counsel to the Franken campaign, said he will be one of the attorneys involved in the recount. He said the campaign was talking to attorneys here and in Washington.
On the Coleman side, attorney Tony Trimble said his firm has been working with the campaign on the recount issue since Tuesday night. Those faced with the prospect of staring at ballots for hours actually will be energized, he said.
"It'd be the Super Bowl of political law or election law," he said. "It's a serious thing. We're talking about control ... at the U.S. Senate."
Schultz said the statewide recount will give Minnesotans a good idea of how sound their voting tallies are, and also may raise the question of our tolerance for error.
"Of course you want 100 percent accuracy ... but as we all know, no system is foolproof," he said. "We're going to find out how accurate our entire process is. Let's say, for example, it turns out it's 99.5 percent accurate. Is that good or is that bad?"