As Norm Coleman's lead over Al Franken was cut to 221 votes, charges flew as fast as the tally changed.
A tiny town in the Democratic stronghold of Minnesota's Iron Range emerged Friday as the latest battleground over the state's disputed U.S. Senate race.
Democrat Al Franken gained 100 votes there between election night and when results were officially tallied on Thursday.
Adding to the intrigue -- and suspicion in Sen. Norm Coleman's camp: The time stamp on the official tape printed out by a ballot machine in the precinct in question carried a date of Nov. 2, two days before the election.
Election officials in Mountain Iron, Minn., and St. Louis County said Friday they are confident the final vote totals were correct. They chalked up the time-stamp discrepancy to a voting machine whose clock may have been improperly set or been running low on batteries.
In the midst of the unresolved election -- the tightest U.S. Senate race in Minnesota history, with a recount in the offing -- the Mountain Iron confusion is the latest wrinkle. The difference between Coleman and Franken, which stood at 725 votes in Coleman's favor Wednesday morning, has changed several times since then as county officials have checked results, and was 221 by Friday evening.
An election night worksheet from St. Louis County showed Franken with 406 votes from Precinct 1 in Mountain Iron. The revised totals Thursday night showed him with 506. Similarly, the vote total for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama increased from 469 to 569 when the final tallies were completed. Both Democrats won the precinct by a ratio of more than 2-to-1.
"Obviously, this is highly suspicious. They found 100 votes, and it's statistically impossible that all 100 votes went to the two Democrats, even in St. Louis County," said Cullen Sheehan, Coleman's campaig manager.
The Coleman campaign, questioning "improbable and statistically dubious chunks of votes [that] appear and disappear," sent letters Friday afternoon asking for records on ballot security and on any revisions of election night vote totals to the Minnesota Secretary of State's office and to each of the state's county auditors.
Ritchie, campaigns meet
Also on Friday, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie met with representatives of both campaigns to discuss the recount. Jess McIntosh, press secretary for the Franken campaign, said the private meeting "was constructive and courteous."
Afterward, Ritchie held a press briefing at which he said that details of the recount will be made available on Wednesday, that the State Canvassing Board will approve a recount plan on Nov. 18 and that the recount must be complete by Dec. 5. The board, which certifies election results, will meet Dec. 16 and is expected to finish its work by Dec. 19.
At the briefing, Ritchie responded to the Coleman campaign's complaints, saying the use of words like "dubious" and "extraordinary" appeared to be a deliberate political strategy "to create a cloud" over the results of the election.
"'Dubious' would imply that county election officials are breaking the law and are dishonest people," Ritchie said. "That's not a statement that I believe this person could support with any facts, and it's the opposite of my experience."
In response to Ritchie's remarks, Sheehan said it's the campaign's right to ask questions about the vote count process and have them answered. "I don't think it's raising a cloud over the process," he said.
Tale of the tape
Officials say the Mountain Iron voting discrepancies may have occurred on election night, when city election officials called in the results to the St. Louis County seat in Duluth. Because St. Louis County covers more than 7,000 square miles and some precincts are three hours away from the county seat, the county allows local election officials to call in unofficial results ahead of official tallies.
"They called in and gave the number," said Paul Tynjala, the county's elections director. "Either we heard it wrong or the person on the other line read it wrong. When we get the official numbers, which are the tapes, we check them and double-check them. That's how we caught the mistake. We caught it right away."
The tapes sent to Duluth, copies of which were examined by the Star Tribune, reflect the increased vote totals for Franken and Obama, but they also bear a time stamp of 7:55 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 2, two days before the election. Copies of election night tapes from the city's second precinct also show a discrepancy in the time stamp, indicating the votes were tallied at 12:14 p.m. on Oct. 31, four days before the election.
Jill Anderson, Mountain Iron's deputy registrar, said election officials tested the machines before the election, successfully running sample ballots through for accuracy. But she acknowledged that no one checked the clock during the test. Election officials did see that the time stamp was off during Election Day but could not adjust the machine during public voting.
"I haven't ever paid that much attention; normally, it's close to the time and date stamp, but it's never 100 percent accurate," Anderson said Friday. "I asked Paul [Tynjala] about that, 'Should I be concerned about this?' He said, "It's probably the only time you'll ever look at it.' To us, the accuracy is in the calculation of the ballots."
Anderson provided the newspaper with copies of the tapes from what is known as the "public accuracy test," which also bear time stamps different from the Oct. 31 date on which Anderson said the tests were conducted.
The voting machines, which are optical scanners, were bought by St. Louis County several years ago with federal funding through the Help America Vote Act, federal legislation that arose after questions were raised about balloting in the 2000 and 2004 presidential races. They are made by Election Systems and Software, an Omaha-based company. A spokesman for the company said Friday they were unaware of any similar problems with time stamps on the machines but said any inaccuracy in the time stamp mechanism would not affect the accuracy of the voting tabulations.
Tynjala, the St. Louis County elections official, said there are mechanisms to reset the clock, but failing to do so may have been an oversight by local elections officials. He said a battery may be low on the machine when not plugged in or there may be confusion over the change from daylight saving time. Nevertheless, he said the issue does not affect the final results.
"The camps can make of it what they want," he said. "I know in Mountain Iron it probably won't happen to them again," he said.
In other developments:
• Sheehan said that lawyers Fritz Knaak and Tony Trimble will be helping the Coleman campaign's recount effort, after former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger begged off because of a time conflict with his review for St. Paul of police tactics during the Republican National Convention.
• Judge Barbara Neilson held a hearing on a Coleman campaign complaint filed last week alleging that Franken had violated election law by telling falsehoods about Coleman in two of his ads. Neilson, who previously tossed out one of the claims, said she will rule on the second dispute in a few days.
Staff writers Pat Doyle, Kevin Duchschere and Glenn Howatt contributed to this report. Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636
The ballot machine's printout at left shows the Mt. Iron Precinct 1 vote tallies from Election Day, but it displays a "Voting Results Report" time stamp of "11/02/2008," which is two days before Election Day. The report at right is from a test that election officials say they conducted on Oct. 31 to make sure the Pct 1 machine was counting ballots correctly; the time stamp is from four days prior to the date they said they conducted the test. Officials say these reports are proof that the machines have faulty clocks.