The number of ballot challenges in the U.S. Senate recount surged again on Monday, passing 3,000 overall and clouding the question of who's picking up ground in the hotly contested race.
More than 78 percent of the votes had been recounted as of Monday night, and Republican Sen. Norm Coleman's advantage over DFLer Al Franken stood at 210, according to a Star Tribune compilation of results reported to the secretary of state and gathered by the newspaper. Before the recount, Coleman led Franken by 215 votes out of about 2.9 million cast, a margin that has fluctuated over the past week.
Each candidate's vote total has fallen by more than 1,100 since the recount began, and the bulk of the drop apparently is the result of ballot challenges by the other side, which may or may not be upheld by the state Canvassing Board next month. Each campaign has challenged more than 1,500 ballots.
According to a Star Tribune analysis, Franken has made a net gain on Coleman of 46 votes that are not tied to ballot challenges. The analysis looked at votes that each candidate has added or lost during the recount in precincts where challenges do not account for them.
As the recount entered its second week, the two campaigns continued their rhetorical to-and-fro, while some tempers flared, ballots went missing and some counters wrapped up work.
The recount, closely followed nationwide because it is key to the partisan makeup of the Senate next year, also is being handicapped far from Minnesota. Nate Silver, a statistician who gained widespread attention for the accuracy of his predictions about the presidential race, has weighed in several times.
On Sunday, he published on his fivethirtyeight.com website a statistical analysis of the numbers reported so far and concluded that as the number of challenges has increased, Franken has had a harder time gaining on Coleman. Even so, he projected, once the challenges are resolved next month by the Canvassing Board, that Franken would come out ahead by 27 votes. A GOP blogger denounced Silver's work, noting that Silver used to contribute to DailyKos, a well-known liberal blog, and mentioning Silver's support of Barack Obama.
Wearing two hats
Few major controversies erupted at recount sites Monday, but some attention was trained on western Minnesota, where a woman from Breckenridge wore hats of both election judge and Franken volunteer, on different days in neighboring counties.
For two days last week, Maggie Vertin participated in Otter Tail County's recount in Fergus Falls as an observer for Franken's campaign. On Saturday, she worked as a Wilkin County election judge in her hometown.
Reached Monday, she defended her dual roles, saying she was "politically active and impartial when necessary ... [I] feel totally comfortable that I was fair and honest." She added, "I don't understand why this should be a problem. Everyone in that room had voted for someone. We were an example to show all citizens can be impartial."
Although Vertin said she told Wilkin County Auditor Wayne Bezenek that she was both a judge and an observer, he said he was aware of no such thing. "If I'd known [about her recount work for Franken], she wouldn't have taken part as an election judge," he said. "She did an admirable job."
The state GOP issued a press release Monday criticizing Vertin, but Bezenek said he'd gotten no formal complaints about her work as an election judge. "No one's complained to me, so nothing really came of it," he said.
Wrapping up, tracking down
In Ramsey County, officials completed the recount of St. Paul's 104 precincts Monday. It appeared Franken had a net 22-vote gain in the city where Coleman served two terms as mayor.
An unofficial Star Tribune tally showed Franken more than doubling Coleman's total -- 98,988 to 40,817. That doesn't include 69 ballot challenges by Coleman or 62 by Franken.
In Anoka County, election officials had to hunt down two missing ballots. When they counted ballots for a precinct in Lexington, they came up two short of the number recorded on Election Day. That led to a call to Lexington City Hall and a search of the box in which ballots had been kept before the recount began.
A city worker jiggled it, and the two ballots -- one for Coleman and the other for a minor-party candidate -- tumbled into view. Static electricity probably had pinned them to the side of the box when all the others were removed to be taken to the Anoka County Government Center for the recount.
In Duluth, St. Louis County finished its portion of the recount Monday, after five full days. In the end, because of ballot challenges and, to a lesser extent, adjustments due to machine-counting errors and election night mistakes discovered during the recount, Franken got 126 votes fewer in the recount and Coleman got 69 fewer. Each candidate will get back at least some votes when the Canvassing Board rules on the ballot challenges: 222 were made by Coleman supporters and 128 by the Franken camp.
The campaigns held another set of dueling news conferences Monday. Franken's side said its count showed that Coleman's lead continued to drop into the "double digits" but declined to specify a number. But a Coleman spokesman said the recount had largely run its course in key DFL-leaning areas, like St. Louis County, leaving Franken still behind.
"We feel comfortable with where things stand right now," said Fritz Knaak, the lead recount attorney for Coleman.
Marc Elias, a recount lawyer for Franken, said the campaign's estimate of Coleman's lead came from factoring in the preliminary calls being made by election judges on every ballot that was challenged.
"[We're looking at] the county election official -- what was their call on the ballot," said Elias. "Because though there are challenges to those calls, we're going to assume that in most instances -- the vast majority of instances -- [the election official's call] in fact is going to be the final result."
Knaak, meanwhile, said the Coleman camp's analysis of the challenged ballots, as of mid-afternoon Monday, gave Coleman a five-vote lead among them, but he acknowledged it was an ever-changing number.
He added that the Coleman campaign was suspicious that Franken's campaign was increasing its ballot challenges in an attempt to "artificially deflate" Coleman's lead before a Canvassing Board meeting Wednesday. Knaak said it was "a pitch to appearances as opposed to reality."
The Franken campaign turned its attention Monday to news reports of lost ballots across Minnesota and sent a letter to Secretary of State Mark Ritchie urging him to investigate.
Though the Canvassing Board is to take up the issue of rejected absentee ballots on Wednesday, both campaigns said they had few details on whether they would be able to address the board at the meeting.
Staff writers Glenn Howatt, Mike Kaszuba, Curt Brown, Larry Oakes and Paul Levy contributed to this report. Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184