Hundreds of volunteers on both sides are up for the count, and they'll pull no punches in the quest for a clean decision.
Lorraine Cecil is a retired English teacher in Bemidji about to turn 80. Zach Zutler is a 26-year-old from Minneapolis studying advertising. And Renee Golinvaux, 43, picks out carpet, tile and plumbing fixtures for her interior decorating business in Prior Lake.
They'll put their lives on hold this week for a job that's as historic as it is tedious, as civic- minded as it is dull and as thankless as it is patriotic.
Starting Wednesday, they'll be among hundreds of volunteer troops in the rapid-response armies of recount observers that have been hastily mobilized to spread out across the state for the Senate campaigns of Norm Coleman and Al Franken.
"If you can count, we need you in Minnesota by November 16 for training,'' hollered an e-mail flyer that featured a winking Sarah Palin and was sent to party activists nationwide by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
With Coleman's reelection lead a tissue-thin 206 votes, the upcoming legally required recount has thrust Minnesota and the integrity of its election process under the closest national scrutiny since the 2000 presidential election hinged on Florida's recount.
Even "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno joked: "Minnesota is an old Indian word that means Florida," referring to the Bush-Gore mess eight years ago.
At stake is the possibility of Democrats securing a filibuster-proof 60 U.S. Senate seats, if still-unresolved races in Alaska and Georgia also go the party's way. Also on the line is Minnesota's reputation for clean elections, a reputation that the volunteer observers said they are determined to maintain.
Minnesotans will be getting some help from veterans of other disputed state tallies. Washington, D.C., election lawyer Marc Elias, who represented Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry four years ago when the results from Ohio were called into question, has parachuted in to help Franken. Republicans have been busily lining up their own legal teams.
But this national story will be played out on local stages, one ballot at a time.
Not another Florida
From Pipestone to Grand Marais, unpaid and unsung observers will sit to the left and right of election auditors, squinting at a total of nearly 3 million ballots at 120 county boardrooms and city conference rooms to help determine who is Minnesota's true selection for the Senate seat. Another 250 nonpartisan observers will fan out as well, part of a quickly mobilized coalition of election-integrity groups.
More than 400 Franken volunteers overflowed an auditorium Saturday morning for the first of three training sessions at St. Paul's Macalester College. Franken led the crowd in what he admitted was an oxymoron of a cheer, chanting: "What do we want? Patience. When do we want it? Now."
He even brought in TV actor Brad Whitford, who played Josh Lyman on the series "West Wing," to rev up his troops. Whitford thanked the volunteers for what might be a "soul-sucking" job, joking that he wanted to confront the boredom issue head-on.
"Seeing all these people is healthy because the more people on both sides that get involved in this recount, the healthier it is for the state and the country," said John DeSantis, 72, a retired teacher, who drove more than 30 miles from his home in Dayton to attend.
The process will take at least a month - barring anticipated legal challenges. While Franken's observers were getting training Saturday at Macalester College, Republicans were equally busy prepping their recount soldiers on the finer points of elections law.
"We're really going to be in the nuts and bolts of an amazing process," said Golinvaux, the decorator and an ardent Coleman backer. She already knows some Franken observers on a first-name basis after recent post-election random precinct audits in Scott County, a dry run of what's to come.
"We might want a different person in the end," Golinvaux said. "But we all have the same goal in mind: We want this to come to an end and be fair."
Minnesota's voter-intent law is aimed at making sure no one gets disenfranchised for making a technical error, such as circling Coleman's name or putting a check by Franken's instead of a properly filled-in oval. Florida had no such voter-intent law in 2000, yet comparisons are hard to escape.
Zutler had just turned 18 and voted for his first time in 2000. Now, he's a Franken activist, Minneapolis college student and recount watcher.
"I hope it's not going to be like that classic photo of that guy with his glasses down his nose, staring aimlessly at hanging chads," Zutler said.
Having spent months doing volunteer work for Franken, Zutler has acquired a taste for energy drinks to get through 18-hour days.
"We called it 'Riding the Tiger,' and it might come in handy during the recount," he said. "I put in 10 months of my life and I can't just walk away now. I feel this is part of my duty and I want to be part of history."
Leaving the gloves behind
Fritz Knaak, Coleman's legal pointman, said the campaign has recruited "mature and responsible people - we're not looking for anyone that's out for blood."
However, one of Coleman's observers in Duluth knows a thing or two about mixing it up. Carinda Horton, 39, is a radio talk-show host who owns a boxing gym and promotes professional fighters.
"I'm not going to bring my gloves, just my upbeat attitude," she said. "I'm sure there will be long days, but ... it will be fascinating to see the whole process."
About 250 miles south, 67-year-old Bill Klucas will be another Coleman observer in the Houston County board room in Caledonia. When it comes to tussles, he has seen worse than Coleman-Franken.
A longtime college basketball coach, Klucas was an assistant at both Ohio State and the University of Minnesota in the early 1970s. He was on the bench helping Gophers coach Bill Musselman when a now-infamous brawl broke out with the Buckeyes at Williams Arena.
Klucas brushed off any comparisons, saying he's just trying to ensure an accurate recount. Like hundreds of others, he'll watch the election auditor place ballots in piles for Coleman and Franken. If the voter's intent is unclear, either side can issue a challenge and the disputed ballots will be shipped to St. Paul. A five-member panel makes the final calls starting Dec. 16.
"It's the biggest chance to make a contribution to something that's really important not only to me as an individual, but for the integrity of my county and state," Klucas said.
Unlike Horton and Klucas, Eric Margolis and Lorraine Cecil hope Franken knocks off Coleman. But their motivations are similar to those of their Coleman counterparts.
"I encouraged everyone I knew, and even strangers during the campaign, to come out and vote," said Margolis, 40, of Hopkins. "I feel I owe it to them to make sure their votes are properly counted and their voices are heard."
He's taking vacation days from his software engineering job to scrutinize ballots.
Cecil, the retired Bemidji State professor, will observe her 80th birthday next Sunday, said it's hard for some of her older friends to get out and vote, as well as for younger folks juggling school and work. So days of tedious ballot watching are the least she can do.
"I'm not sure boring is a term that will even be remotely applicable," she said. "To me, it's a fascinating process and I think everybody has to bend over backwards to make sure all the votes are counted."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767