Call it a sneak preview of the recount.

Twenty men and women settled in along tables at the Ramsey County elections office first thing Monday morning and began plowing through more than 7,700 ballots cast last Tuesday in the U.S. Senate race.

After nearly three hours of counting, Norm Coleman had lost exactly one net vote in five of the county's precincts. Al Franken had gained exactly one.

This isn't a recount, but it sure looks like one.

"You take the ballots out, you count them by hand and you report the results -- exactly what we'll be doing with the [recount]," said Joe Mansky, the county elections director in the midst of overseeing what is known as a "postelection audit," currently underway in all 87 Minnesota counties.

This audit process functionally has nothing to do with the looming statewide recount. It is mandated by a four-year-old state law and is intended to check the accuracy of Minnesota's optical scan voting machines.

But with the massive, 2.9 million-vote recount of the U.S. Senate race set to begin next week, these audits provide something of a curtain-raiser of just how that process will unfold.

Every vote is counted, by hand, with only election judges and elections staffers touching them. The whole process is open to the public, so it occurs under the watchful eyes of good-government volunteers and operatives for the campaigns.

"I'm just watching like everyone else," said John Stiles, a DFL spokesman who had staked out one corner of the conference room. "It all seems pretty straightforward to me."

Coleman volunteer John Nygaard agreed. "It's very transparent -- I'm impressed," he said midway through the morning. "I didn't realize how much work went into this."

Practice round

After the 2006 election, the first time the audit was conducted, it reviewed votes in about 5 percent of the state's 4,123 precincts. Among 94,073 votes cast in the U.S. Senate race in those precincts, the audit found 53 discrepancies, an error rate of .00056.

(If that discrepancy rate occurred statewide in the current Senate race, it could potentially change more than 1,600 votes -- eight times the margin that currently separates Franken and Coleman.)

The audits are monitored by volunteers for a nonprofit group, Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota. Based on partial results from 30 counties audited Thursday, Friday and Monday (not including Ramsey), only two errors had been found, said the group's director, Mark Halvorson.

"From what we've seen so far, we're coming across very few discrepancies," Halvorson said. "We expect the results to be consistent with '06."

In St. Paul on Monday morning, Sarah Martyn Crowell was overseeing the work of a half-dozen volunteers from the organization, who were observing the audit.

"We're just acting as a second pair of eyes here," she said. "This turns out to be a really good practice round for what's going to be a much larger recount."

The machines worked

Shortly after 8:30 a.m., Mansky gave the election judges, his employees and the observers their marching orders: No talking by the observers, no interaction with the observers ("Joe's rule of thumb is arm's length -- that's how far you stand behind them," Crowell said).

Mansky told the workers to count, by hand, all of the Senate-race votes cast in the five precincts that were randomly picked. He told them to set aside any ballots that were improperly marked, with a check mark or "X" that the scanners might not have read. "I'll look at them and decide who the vote should be allocated to," Mansky said. "OK, let's get going."

With that, 12 sealed banker's boxes filled with ballots were wheeled into the room and the counting commenced.

As Mansky's staffers sorted the votes into piles for Franken, Coleman and the three other candidates who were on the ballot, the election judges counted and stacked them.

Mansky hand-counted the improperly marked ballots. But many of them, it turned out, had been properly read by the voting machine scanners.

"The machines worked," Mansky said. "That's the whole point of this exercise."

He was writing the precinct totals on a white board, having to correct himself a couple of times because of bad math. "Sorry, my mistake -- I forgot the write-ins," Manksy said. "That's what happens when you haven't had a day off since May."

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184