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Carver County's handling of absentee ballots a focus of Coleman's argument

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE
  • Star Tribune
  • February 18, 2009 - 8:12 AM

How far must county elections officials go to make sure a vote is valid?

In Carver County, they check to make sure witnesses for an absentee voter are registered voters. In Scott County, it's a different story.

Lawyers for Republican Norm Coleman seized on the different approaches Tuesday as evidence of varying practices by local elections officials, a theme they have sounded during the trial over Minnesota's disputed U.S. Senate election.

"Carver County rejected 181 of its absentee ballots because the witnesses were unregistered," Coleman legal spokesman Ben Ginsberg said after the day's proceedings. "Scott County said they don't even check for that. That presents a classic case of the voters of one county having a greater chance of being disenfranchised than the other county."

But a lawyer for DFLer Al Franken said different practices don't demonstrate unfair standards.

"There is one standard -- the law," said Marc Elias. "It doesn't mean that counties don't make mistakes within that standard. But if Mr. Coleman wants to do away with that, then he's going to ... do away with county involvement altogether and we're going to move to a national elections board."

Coleman's camp has often raised the possibility that the conduct of absentee voting in Minnesota violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Elias says Coleman is setting the stage for an appeal to the Minnesota or U.S. Supreme Court, if he loses.

Carver County focus

Since the Canvassing Board certified a 225-vote lead for Franken last month, Coleman lawyers have focused attention on Carver County, a GOP stronghold that went for him by nearly 26 percentage points in November. Coleman seeks to overcome Franken's lead in large part by persuading the three-judge panel to count absentee ballots rejected by counties. Coleman has identified Carver as holding more wrongly rejected ballots than any other county.

On Tuesday, Carver County elections supervisor Kendra Olson testified that her elections officials checked witness addresses and the state voter registration database. "That is why there is such a higher number of rejected ballots in Carver County," she said.

State statutes say the return envelope of an absentee voter must be signed by the voter and be witnessed "by a person who is registered to vote in Minnesota" or by a notary public.

Scott County elections supervisor Mary Kay Kes and Wright County elections overseer Robert Hiivala said their counties don't check whether a witness is registered.

Coleman lawyer Joe Friedberg used their testimony to advance the argument that varying practices could create a violation of equal protection.

But Elias noted that the panel, in a ruling on Friday, said there was no evidence of systemic problems with absentee voting. And the panel, in an earlier order, sounded skeptical of Coleman's argument that problems with absentee voting here were comparable to problems in the 2000 presidential election in Florida, which the U.S. Supreme Court said lacked "specific standards" to ensure equal protection. "Unlike the situation presented in Florida ... the Minnesota Legislature has enacted a standard clearly and unambiguously" the panel said.

In another development, the judges approved Franken's request to submit an updated list of rejected absentee ballots to be potentially considered for counting. Franken wants to refine his 771-ballot list to make it compatible with the ruling Friday that narrowed the scope of issues to be considered in the review of absentee ballots.

About 3,300 rejected ballots that Coleman wants reconsidered remain in the mix after the panel's ruling.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

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