Minnesota's U.S. Senate race took a dramatic turn Tuesday with a pair of developments involving absentee ballots: One county acted on its own initiative to count several ballots that it said were wrongly excluded, and two prominent county attorneys proposed a statewide process to reexamine rejected ballots.
The moves came on the eve of a state Canvassing Board meeting today at which the fate of such possibly decisive ballots may be determined.
Meanwhile, controversies involving dozens of lost-and-found ballots continued to pop up at recount centers around the state.
Democrat Al Franken's campaign last week argued before the Canvassing Board that improperly rejected absentee ballots should be identified and counted -- and that the board has the authority to do it. The campaign of Republican Sen. Norm Coleman argues that it's a matter to be decided by the courts.
In Itasca County, officials said Tuesday that they would reconsider absentee ballots that had been neglected or mistakenly rejected.
"During the course of our reconciliation, going back and looking at absentee ballots, we discovered that there were three that should have been counted," said County Auditor/Treasurer Jeff Walker. He said that the recount would be reopened on Monday to consider the ballots and that lawyers for both campaigns have been notified so that they can witness the process.
The Star Tribune has analyzed the reasons absentee ballots were rejected in 28 counties, and only two counties -- Ramsey and Itasca -- specifically cite election officials' error. In Ramsey County, it appeared that 53 rejections were tied to administrative error.
Also Tuesday, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman proposed a process for reconsidering rejected absentee ballots that would partly skirt the Canvassing Board: Have local elections officials review such ballots and identify those possibly improperly rejected.
Freeman, a DFLer who backed Franken, said that he and Anoka County Attorney Bob Johnson worked on the plan after Secretary of State Mark Ritchie asked them and other county attorneys for ideas to improve the process.
In a statement, the Coleman campaign said: "This is a back-door effort by both the Franken campaign, and Mr. Freeman, to try to gain influence on the eve of the discussions by the Canvassing Board, and there needs to be further explanation for why the Hennepin County Attorney is using his office in such an overtly partisan manner."
But Freeman disagreed with that assessment. "This is trying to count all the ballots. How the hell is that partisan?" he said.
Found, and lost and found
Meanwhile, chaos reigned at the Becker County recount site for a second day as some ballots were unexpectedly found Monday and others were temporarily lost Tuesday.
The missing ballots set off alarms in the Franken campaign, which said that a few hundred missing ballots had been identified statewide, but it wouldn't say where. But such mishaps have been extremely isolated, said Mark Halvorson, director of Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota (CEIMN), a watchdog group that has been monitoring the recount.
With 82 percent of ballots cast recounted by Tuesday evening and the number of challenged ballots climbing past 3,600, Coleman's lead over Franken stood at 231 votes, according to a Star Tribune compilation of results reported to Ritchie's office and gathered by the newspaper. That figure represented a gain for Coleman from Monday, and put him 16 votes above the margin he held at the start of the recount.
The Canvassing Board will meet at 9:30 a.m. today in St. Paul to take up the Franken request to consider rejected absentee ballots.
At stake are an unknown number of absentee ballots, out of several thousand rejected, that the Franken campaign says weren't counted because of administrative mistakes.
Marc Elias, a lawyer with the Franken campaign, said that 66 Minnesota counties have given information to the campaign on rejected absentee ballots, amounting to votes cast by 6,432 people. While it's likely that most of those ballots were properly rejected, he said, the campaign on Tuesday forwarded an affidavit containing examples of ballots that were turned back in error to the Canvassing Board.
In Becker County, officials were confronted Monday with 61 ballots that had not been counted on Election Day, County Auditor Ryan Tangen said. After the ballots were discovered in the county auditor's office Friday night, Tangen said, he was told by the secretary of state's office to include them in the recount.
But then a total of 46 ballots from two rural precincts turned up missing Tuesday when the recount had been completed for those precincts, according to Terry Kalil, a volunteer observer with CEIMN, the watchdog group. Elections officials drove to the township halls where the votes had been cast and found them in locked buildings, she said. The votes were counted and matched the original count for the precincts, Kalil said.
Late Tuesday afternoon, another nine ballots were missing when another rural precinct's votes were recounted. The fate of the ballots was unknown when this edition went to press.
Tangen said both campaigns have asked that the formerly missing ballots be segregated in case they become the subject of legal challenges after the recount.
In Crystal, officials said they found eight absentee ballots, still sealed in their security envelopes, that had not been counted Nov. 4. The envelopes were discovered Friday night among opened envelopes, a city spokeswoman said.
Star Tribune staff writers Bob von Sternberg, Paul Levy and Paul Walsh contributed to this report.
Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455