Coleman rests cases in Minn. Senate lawsuit

  • Article by: BRIAN BAKST
  • Associated Press
  • March 2, 2009 - 4:31 PM

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Lawyers for Republican Norm Coleman rested their case Monday, saying they were confident they had proven that vote-counting flaws put Democrat Al Franken on top in the Minnesota Senate recount.

Beginning Tuesday, Franken's lawyers will attempt to show the former "Saturday Night Live" personality is the legitimate winner of the drawn-out race. They say they need only half of the five weeks that Coleman's side took to present its case, meaning the judges could hear final arguments by mid-March.

There's no telling when the legal fight will really end. Either side could appeal a loss to higher courts or the U.S. Senate, which has the power to judge the qualifications of members before they're seated.

Coleman, whose six-year term expired Jan. 3, sued after a statewide hand recount reversed the thin lead he had on Election Night. He entered the case needing to overcome a 225-vote Franken lead.

Through dozens of witnesses and thousands of pages of written evidence, Coleman's team has tried to show Franken got at least 170 invalid votes, and that scores of absentee voters had their ballots improperly excluded because local officials inconsistently applied state law in judging them.

"We have put enough votes in play to make Norm Coleman the U.S. senator," Coleman adviser Ben Ginsberg said. "We think we made a very convincing case that will eventually lead to Norm Coleman being re-sworn in as the senator from Minnesota."

Despite that confidence, Coleman's lawyers for the first time suggested the judges weigh whether to invalidate the entire election. "Some courts have held that when the number of illegal votes exceeds the margin between the candidates — and it cannot be determined for which candidates those illegal votes were case — the most appropriate remedy is to set aside the election," they wrote in a letter to the judges.

Meanwhile, Franken attorney Marc Elias said he's confident the Democrat's lead is safe.

"We feel pretty good on the eve of our own case," he said. "How many individual votes did they meet their burden on?"

Based on the court's prior rulings, hundreds if not thousands of sealed absentee ballots could be opened before the Senate count is finalized. Both sides have submitted lists of rejected ballots they think officials handled improperly.

Aside from adding new votes from areas that favored him on Nov. 4, Coleman hopes to disqualify votes he thinks improperly fed into Franken's lead.

Minneapolis is the hotspot in that effort — and it comes down to two pools of ballots.

One involves 132 ballots in an envelope that both campaigns now agree disappeared between the election and the recount. To compensate, Election Night numbers were used for the precinct, a decision that spared Franken 46 net votes. Coleman's lawyers say the action violated state law.

The second batch involves alleged double-counting of votes during the recount. In short, Coleman claims that some election officials failed to include proper markings on ballots duplicated for technical reasons on Election Day. So during the recount, they say, some original and duplicate ballots for the same people made it into the count and gave Franken 125 more votes than he deserved.

The final Coleman witness on the stand Monday was a Minneapolis poll worker who has testified she was on hand when other election officials in her precinct fed unmarked duplicate ballots into vote machines, which made it impossible to match them up with originals during the recount.

Pamela Howell's testimony had been in doubt after it was disclosed she gave information to Coleman's campaign that wasn't turned over to Franken's lawyers as trial rules require. The case's three judges considered striking her testimony from the record, but ultimately admitted it. They imposed a $7,500 punishment on the Coleman legal team for the disclosure violation, which delayed the case.

Howell, an acknowledged Republican, testified Monday that she only had firsthand knowledge of her own south Minneapolis precinct and wasn't attempting to speak for what transpired elsewhere. She said the Election Night error haunted her and led her to bring her concerns to GOP lawyers, who convinced her to testify despite her reservations.

"I did not want the press at my door and I did not want a target on my back," Howell said.

The only other witness on the stand Monday was Minnesota elections director Gary Poser, whose testimony also spanned a few days.

Under questioning from Coleman lawyer Joe Friedberg, Poser conceded that there were mistakes in a statewide database that local officials use to track voter registrations. Such a problem could have caused some absentee voters to have ballots rejected because it appeared they had registered and voted in person on Election Day.

Outside court, Ginsberg characterized Poser's testimony as a "blockbuster" admission that calls into question the entire database and the Senate tally itself.

"It's impossible to have faith now in what those numbers are given the systemic corruption in the accuracy of the secretary of state database," he said.

Elias said Coleman's team failed to prove how widespread the problem was and were wrong to shower doubt on the entire election.

The case resumes Tuesday morning, when Elias and his colleagues call voters who had absentee ballots denied.

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