Beginning a critical new stage in Minnesota's U.S. Senate recount, the campaigns of Sen. Norm Coleman and Al Franken are expected to spend today and Sunday identifying absentee ballots that they believe were improperly rejected and should now be counted.

Because Franken has an unofficial lead of 46 votes over Coleman at this stage, the rejected absentee ballots have the potential to tip the scales.

Just how many could be added to the vote totals remains unclear. State officials had said as many as 1,600 absentee ballots may have been improperly rejected because of administrative errors. However, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann said Friday that numbers from various counties appeared lower than some early estimates, but he added, "I still think it's going to be over a thousand."

Counties were sending information about ballots that they say were improperly rejected to the campaigns for their review under a process worked out this week with the secretary of state's office.

Late Friday afternoon, Coleman spokesman Mark Drake said that the campaign had received a list of "several hundred" absentee ballots on spreadsheets from county elections officials and that he was expecting more.

The counties and the campaigns must agree on which ballots were improperly rejected under a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling issued last week. Both campaigns are expected to work today and Sunday on the county lists and by Monday to identify ballots that they believe were improperly rejected, as well as those that they think were correctly turned aside.

If there is disagreement on the number of improperly rejected ballots, the counties and campaigns will try to resolve their differences at meetings next week. Twelve regional meetings are scheduled throughout the state and will be open to the public.

The campaigns and counties will know where the ballots came from and the reasons for their rejection, but because the ballots are unopened, they won't know how the votes were cast. Ballots that everyone agrees were wrongly rejected will be sent to the secretary of state's office to be counted.

Court ruling

The Coleman campaign had tried to prevent apparently mistakenly rejected absentee ballots from being included in the recount, saying it was a matter better left to a later court action.

But in a ruling last week, the state Supreme Court ordered local election officials and the campaigns to identify those ballots and send them unopened to the secretary of state by Jan. 2. The secretary has until Jan. 4 to count and send them to the Canvassing Board for inclusion in vote totals.

"We're grateful for the quick work of the county officials and really excited to get these votes counted," said Franken spokeswoman Jess McIntosh.

Late Friday, Gelbmann said all 87 counties in the state had either sent spreadsheets of their counts of improperly rejected absentee ballots or had notified the campaigns that they found none.

The campaigns will be working together this weekend to identify those ballots that they agree on, Gelbmann said. "The question is: How many will they be able to agree on?" he asked.

How two campaigns that have fought a harsh election battle will work together on the lists also is unclear.

"We talked about that," Gelbmann said. "One side said, 'We can just exchange e-mails,' and the other side said, 'I'd like to get together face to face.' That's for them to resolve."

In determining the validity of the absentee ballots, the candidates are supposed to follow state laws that say a ballot is valid if the voter was properly registered, didn't vote a second time in person, and the voter's name, address and signature on the return envelope correspond with information that person gave when applying for a ballot.

The Supreme Court ruling provided sanctions for campaign lawyers raising frivolous objections to accepting absentee ballots that counties said were improperly rejected.

When there is disagreement on whether an absentee ballot was correctly rejected, the parties will try to settle the dispute in the regional meetings Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, Gelbmann said.

The Supreme Court required unanimous agreement among the campaigns and the local elections officials on which ballots will be accepted.

Voters whose ballots are not accepted by one or both candidates will be notified that a candidate blocked them and that they can appeal in court.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210