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Coleman asks court to intervene in rejected absentee ballot count

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK
  • Star Tribune
  • December 13, 2008 - 5:15 PM
Lawyers for Republican Norm Coleman on Saturday asked the state Supreme Court to intervene in how rejected absentee ballots will be counted in the protracted U.S. Senate race with DFL opponent Al Franken, saying the process in place now is “internally inconsistent, contrary to applicable law and confusing.”

The Coleman campaign wants the court to order county elections officials to stop sorting or counting the rejected ballots until a court can rule on their legitimacy.

As many as 1,600 absentee ballots may have been wrongfully rejected in the election, a number that could prove pivotal in the razor-thin recount. The Franken campaign contends the proper standards already exist.

The Coleman campaign failed to file its petition by close of business Friday with the Supreme Court’s clerk of court’s office, but Cullen Sheehan, campaign manager for Coleman, confirmed the campaign provided the paperwork Saturday morning to a waiting court official. A spokesman for the court said it will likely be officially filed early Monday. 

Fearing what they called “a Florida situation” and citing the landmark Bush vs. Gore, attorneys for Coleman argue that the court should intervene in the absence of uniform criteria for how counties should reject Election Day absentee ballots. There are four legal reasons for rejecting an absentee ballot and counties have been asked by the Minnesota secretary of state’s office to separate their rejected ballots into a pile for each legal reason and in a fifth pile, designated for rejected ballots that do not fit into any other legal category.

The petition -- which names Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, the state Canvassing Board and local election officials -- says Ritchie’s office and the state Canvassing Board have provided “conflicting and unclear guidance” that will result in 87 different counties applying 87 different standards to the ballots.

For example, according to the petition, Isanti County didn’t place any ballots in its fifth pile for lacking a city designation in the witness address line; while Dakota County placed numerous ballots in the pile for the same infraction.

“Just as mistakes may have been made in rejecting absentee ballot envelopes on election night, mistakes will inevitably be made in second-guessing these initial rejections,’ the petition argues.

It asks that the court order county elections officials to take no further action related to the rejected ballots until the court approves, that any questions about the rejected ballots should be addressed by the courts, and that all rejected absentee ballots be preserved as if they will be evidence in a future court action. In the alternative, the petition says representatives from each campaign should be permitted to challenge the absentee ballots.

Franken campaign accused the Coleman campaign of desperation tactics. Franken spokesman Andy Barr said the paperwork filed differs dramatically from what Coleman’s attorneys on Friday claimed they would be seeking: clarity in the standards. It is actually asking for the count to be stopped, Barr said.

 “This is not a request for clarification or guidance. This is, plain and simple, a lawsuit to overturn the decision of the state canvassing board yesterday,” Barr said on Saturday.  “Suing to disenfranchise lawful Minnesota voters may be characteristic of their approach to this entire process, but it is not how Minnesotans expect campaigns to conduct themselves.”

Earlier this week, more than half the state’s counties and larger cities began to separate out wrongly rejected absentee ballots from those legitimately turned back under state law. Based on the numbers tallied so far by 49 counties and cities, officials estimated that there may be as many as 1,600 absentee ballots that should have been counted but were mistakenly excluded.

 Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636

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