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Senate recount: Coleman appeals to state's top court

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE, PAT DOYLE and MIKE KASZUBA
  • Star Tribune
  • December 31, 2008 - 9:58 PM

With a New Year's Eve noisemaker that could further prolong the U.S. Senate recount, Sen. Norm Coleman's campaign asked the Minnesota Supreme Court late Wednesday to scrap the reviews of wrongly rejected absentee ballots underway across the state and instead have all such ballots reviewed by state and campaign officials in St. Paul.

There was no word Wednesday evening on when the court would rule on the request, which would require that the review of about 1,350 absentee ballots that began around the state this week start over.

Hundreds of additional ballots would also have to be reconsidered under the campaign's request.

"We're talking about enfranchising people," said Coleman recount attorney Fritz Knaak.

But a recount attorney for Democrat Al Franken said that his campaign would fight the move and was confident it would fail.

"They are now back ... asking for a do-over" even though the process ordered by the Supreme Court is nearly finished, said Marc Elias, a Franken attorney.

"We're simply not prepared to allow them to rewrite those rules," he said.

Franken took an unofficial 49-vote lead over Republican Coleman Monday after the state Canvassing Board finished tallying votes previously challenged by the campaigns.

That means that there are no more votes to recount, and only the wrongly rejected absentee ballots are left to spell the difference between victory or defeat for the candidates.

Trading places

The Coleman campaign's court petition underscored the irony that the campaigns have largely traded positions on counting additional votes.

For weeks, while Coleman held an unofficial lead, it was the Franken campaign that daily decried the danger of disenfranchising voters. Now, with Franken ahead, it is Coleman's troops who are mainly calling for more rejected ballots to be considered.

Coleman's aim is "bringing in ballots that were wrongly excluded," attorney Knaak said Wednesday. "I heard it a hundred times from the Franken campaign."

In addition to the 1,346 absentee ballots already identified by counties as wrongly rejected, the Coleman campaign in recent days has asked counties to review another 654 rejected absentee ballots that may be legitimate. Some counties have agreed to the request, while others have not.

Franken campaign officials also have sought to have a smaller number of absentee ballots added to the list, even though they said this week that they were satisfied with the local officials' list.

Knaak said in a statement that the Coleman campaign's action was prompted by concerns that a county-by-county review of the wrongly rejected ballots was resulting in the emergence of "a subtle form of political guerrilla warfare."

It was inconsistent to review only those absentee ballots judged wrongly rejected by local officials, Knaak said, and leave out, in some but not all cases, other ballots questioned by the campaigns.

Officials in Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's office issued a brief statement Wednesday, saying that they looked forward to "the completion of the State Canvassing Board's work next week." They noted that all parties had been working to carry out the court's order to count wrongly rejected absentee ballots by Sunday and that it was "now 90 percent complete."

Elias said the Coleman petition seeks to halt the count. "If this process can be revisited every time one candidate decides at the end of it that they're not likely to prevail, then it will never end," he said.

Progress made

Earlier Wednesday, the laborious task of reviewing the unopened absentee ballots had picked up speed around the state, including in the two largest counties of Hennepin and Ramsey, where scores of ballots were scrutinized by campaign representatives.

Under the Supreme Court's ruling last week, the counties and campaigns must agree on which ballots were wrongly rejected. Those will be counted by the Secretary of State's office and the results forwarded to the state Canvassing Board for review Monday.

In Ramsey County, the parties took four hours to go through 133 unopened absentee ballots. The campaigns agreed to send 71 ballots to the Secretary of State's office to be opened, counted and added to the results. Thirty-three ballots were rejected by the Franken camp and 21 by the Coleman camp.

In Hennepin County, a dramatic moment occurred when the session began. Franken recount attorney David Lillehaug objected to reviewing any of the 170 rejected absentee county ballots that Coleman's attorneys wanted to add to the 329 ballots already on the review list.

Bill McGinley, a Coleman attorney, offered to include the 30 ballots that Franken wanted to add. Lillehaug nixed that offer, too.

The campaigns then watched as county officials slowly began going through each of the 329 original disputed ballots. With 123 ballots, Minneapolis had by far the highest number in the county. Before ending the day, the two campaigns had considered 92 of the Minneapolis ballots, rejecting just two of them; both came from the Coleman campaign.

By the time word spread late Wednesday that the Coleman campaign had gone to the Supreme Court, lawyers for the two campaigns had reviewed 231 Hennepin County ballots. Of that amount, the two campaigns had accepted 182 ballots, and had each rejected 24 ballots.

Progress also was made elsewhere in the state Wednesday.

• In Wright County, local and campaign officials agreed to send 17 of 29 unopened ballots to St. Paul. The Franken campaign blocked eleven and the Coleman campaign blocked one. The Coleman campaign also tried to get a handful of other ballots reconsidered, but county officials concluded those ballots had been properly rejected.

• Crow Wing County officials had identified 26 absentee ballots they said were improperly rejected, and ended up sending 20 to the state. Franken blocked five and county officials withdrew one.

• In Polk County, five of seven ballots that local elections officials considered wrongly rejected wound up going to St. Paul; Franken blocked the other two.

kduchschere@startribune.com • 651-292-0164 mkaszuba@startribune.com • 651-222-1673 pdoyle@startribune.com • 651-222-1210

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