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For Norm Coleman, real live voters succeeded Tuesday where photocopied ballot envelopes had failed.
On Day 2 of the trial over Coleman's lawsuit challenging the U.S. Senate recount, lawyers for him and for Democrat Al Franken questioned a half-dozen voters whose absentee ballots were rejected, a group that was generally sympathetic and indignant that their ballots had not been counted. Coleman is focusing his efforts on counting thousands of rejected absentee ballots in an effort to overcome the 225-vote Franken lead that was certified this month after the recount concluded.
On Monday, the panel refused to allow Coleman to introduce photocopies of rejected absentee ballot envelopes that had been marked or inaccurately copied by his campaign workers. The judges demanded to see originals of any rejected-ballot envelopes used as evidence, and spent much of Tuesday huddling with the campaigns to devise a system for bringing originals from Minnesota counties to the court at the Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul.
The Coleman campaign put a face on the rejected absentee ballots it wants counted by calling on 75-year-old Gerald Anderson, of St. Paul.
Anderson, who is blind and walked to the witness stand with a cane, said he voted absentee in the November election but found out only about a week to 10 days ago from the Republican Party that his ballot was rejected.
"I first voted for [President Dwight] Eisenhower," said Anderson. He said his ballot was rejected "for no good reason," adding, "perhaps my signature is not quite as good as it once was. ... Things have changed a little bit."
"My vote's worth nothing anymore. Maybe I'm worth nothing -- I don't know," he said. "I'm entitled to my vote."
Anderson was among the half-dozen absentee voters who testified Tuesday in the Coleman campaign's move to have thousands of rejected ballots reviewed.
Another Coleman witness, Eugene Markman, 74, of Waite Park, said he also became aware that his absentee ballot was rejected only when he was called by the Republican Party.
Mijanou Sampers, of Rosemount, viewed her absentee ballot envelope from the witness stand and said, "It's mine. It's got my signature on there." Why would an election official reject her ballot because her signature did not match, she was asked in court. "I'd like to know," she said.
Another Coleman witness demonstrated why sorting valid from invalid ballots was difficult. Douglas Thompson, who said he voted absentee because he was caring for his mother in Arizona, acknowledged that his girlfriend actually filled out his absentee ballot application and that he did not sign it.
"The signature is not your signature?" asked Kevin Hamilton, a Franken attorney.
"No, it is not," said Thompson, who said his girlfriend's signature probably ultimately led election officials to reject his ballot.
But Thompson said he did fill out the actual ballot when it arrived, and signed the accompanying envelope. "If I put this in an envelope and I sign it ... my vote should count," he said.
When Coleman lawyer Jim Langdon asked Wesley Briest, 88, how he voted, Briest initially said he "went to the ballot place and voted. Not absentee." Later, when shown an absentee ballot envelope, he confirmed that he had signed it and denied that he also voted in person.
In the early stages of the recount, when Franken trailed in the unofficial vote total, his campaign similarly called on voters to argue that votes had been improperly rejected. In a YouTube video released by the Franken campaign in December, a quadriplegic man was shown lying in bed as he asked officials to count his vote. "I may be a quadriplegic," he said, staring into the camera and speaking in a halting voice, "... but we are still someone, and we deserve to have our votes counted." The campaign said the man had his absentee ballot wrongly rejected.
Division over ballots
The exchanges Tuesday during the trial underscore a division between the Coleman and Franken campaigns on how to determine whether as many as 11,000 absentee ballots were wrongly rejected.
Coleman says the answers can usually be found on absentee ballot envelopes, which include explanations or other evidence for why a ballot was rejected. In many cases, they say, the envelopes indicate that ballots were rejected even though they resembled some of 933 other ballots that were originally rejected but eventually counted in the state canvass.
But Franken lawyers have argued that the absentee ballot envelopes and related documents aren't sufficient to determine whether a disputed vote was valid, and say local elections officials should be called to explain whether a ballot was rejected for reasons not obvious on the envelope.
Franken's contention that testimony from local election officials is needed got support from Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann, who was a central figure during the administrative recount that ended Jan. 5.
"Each one of [these] rejected absentee ballots has a story behind it," Gelbmann said. "The matching of the signature is one area where there is a level of discretion."
Franken lawyers also objected to four of the six people who testified Tuesday, saying that they were not among the 654 people whose rejected ballots Coleman had initially wanted to review and were instead part of the campaign's attempt to reconsider a much larger number of rejected ballots.
Coleman, speaking to reporters at the end of the day, described the testimony of the six voters as "passionate."
"We saw the human side of it today," said Coleman, who sat with his lawyers in the courtroom. "It was heartwarming to be here ... you saw the human side of it today, and that's what it's really all about."
Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg said the campaign was focusing on 4,549 rejected absentee ballots that appear to be similar to ones that had been counted. "We believe that that is the universe," he said, and rejected claims that the number of ballots Coleman wanted reconsidered was repeatedly changing. He said the figure differed only as the Coleman campaign was being asked to respond to a shifting set of questions as the trial progresses.
But Franken's lawyers said the judges should consider only the 654 ballots that Coleman initially cited in his lawsuit. Hamilton said that even a Coleman move to examine nearly 5,000 votes was a moving target because the campaign "swapped out" 500 of the names. "This is a constant game of shuffling the deck," he said.
Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210 Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673