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Continued: Judges will hear which absentee ballots should count today

In what could prove to be the most important day of the U.S. Senate election trial so far, lawyers for Al Franken and Norm Coleman will trade arguments today on whether several types of rejected absentee ballots should be reconsidered or rejected once and for all.

"You will hear a lot of issues discussed in a very short amount of time," said Coleman spokesman Ben Ginsberg.

The categories that the presiding three judges agree to reconsider will become central to the trial, in which Republican Coleman is seeking to overturn DFLer Franken's 225-vote lead.

The ruling could both expand the number of rejected absentee ballots to be counted, and shrink the amount of time necessary to run through them in court.

Last week, the judges ruled that 4,800 voters, whose absentee ballots may have been rejected because of election officials' errors, might have their votes counted after all. Coleman claims that such errors happened repeatedly.

Franken -- who has taken a relatively restrictive view of possible ballots since he took the lead over Coleman in recount results certified last month -- believes that absentee ballots should not be counted in 17 of 19 major categories of rejected ballots identified by the judges.

About the only disputed absentee ballots that Franken says should be allowed are those where a local election official messed up a new voter's registration, or where the voter and his witness didn't write down the same dates.

Coleman, on the other hand, wants to reconsider ballots from 16 of the 19 categories.

The approaches are almost opposite the strategies followed by the campaigns during the recount, when Coleman sought to limit the field of ballots to be considered and Franken sought to expand it.

And in courtroom action

On Wednesday, in the St. Paul courtroom where the recount trial is taking place, Franken attorney David Lillehaug ran through a series of Dakota County absentee ballots and argued that Coleman now wants several votes counted that he had prevented from being included in the recount.

On the other hand, Coleman spokesman Ginsberg said "the great Franken disenfranchise machine" wanted to turn down ballots similar to many other rejected ballots that were eventually tallied in the recount.

"We asked for virtually every category of ballot to be included so that Minnesota voters can have their votes counted," he said.

Election changes proposed

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie proposed steps Wednesday to make voting by absentee ballot easier and less confusing.

Ritchie, who chaired the state Canvassing Board that oversaw the recount, would like the law changed to allow Minnesotans to vote for several days before an election. He also wants the state to permit absentee voting without having to give a reason, and to replace signature matches on the ballot and envelope with ID numbers.

"I feel like the recount has not only given us some information, but a lot of momentum" for reform, Ritchie said. But he cautioned that significant change may be difficult in a legislative session focused on the massive problems associated with the state's budget deficit, he said.

Ballot arguments

As evidenced by his position on the 19 ballot categories identified by the judicial panel, Coleman wants to reconsider nearly every type of absentee ballot rejected by county officials.

A witness didn't check proof of residence? Count it. A voter failed to sign for an application for a ballot? Count it. A ballot was cast by a voter from the wrong precinct? Count it.

He wants to count ballots lacking a required voter signature when a preprinted address sticker from the government covered instructions for signing. He has blamed the stickers, which include address information, for the rejection of 854 ballots.

But Franken lawyers have dismissed the claim during the trial, eliciting testimony from some witnesses who said they signed the absentee ballot envelopes without reading instructions.

Attorney Marc Elias said the Franken argument follows state law, which he said readily allows people to register to vote but then holds them to a strict standard and several conditions should they elect to do it by absentee ballot.

Minnesota views absentee voting "as a privilege, not a right, and that privilege is extended only to people who meet the requirements of law," Elias said.

So Franken would reject ballots where the voter failed to sign a ballot's eligibility certificate in the right box, where the voter failed to sign the ballot application or where the address on the return envelope doesn't match that on the application.

Failing to check proof of residence is a no-no, according to Franken, as well as when a nonregistered voter fails to sign the registration forms or when a witness fails to include her address.

kduchschere@startribune.com • 651-292-0164

pdoyle@startribune.com • 651-222-1210

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