Even as challenged ballots took center stage in the U.S. Senate race, three of Minnesota's biggest counties continued to grapple with absentee ballots, the other outstanding issue that could finally settle the contest between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken.

In Hennepin and St. Louis counties, officials are waiting for guidance from the state Supreme Court before they go ahead with the counting of hundreds of improperly rejected absentee ballots.

Meanwhile, Olmsted County officials were taken to court Tuesday by Franken's campaign for not counting on election night a number of absentee ballots that the campaign says weren't actually rejected. The campaign asked a district court judge to order the county to count 27 absentee ballots accepted by elections officials but mistakenly not tallied because of what the campaign called an "administrative error."

Olmsted County officials did not return a call requesting comment.

Central ground

With the race so incredibly tight, improperly rejected absentee ballots have become a central battlefront for the two campaigns.

Members of the state Canvassing Board last week recommended that county election officials count ballots that were mistakenly set aside, estimated to total as many as 1,600. But the board stopped short of saying whether those votes would be included in the final totals.

The Coleman campaign promptly asked the state Supreme Court to require that statewide standards be set for evaluating and counting the votes. A hearing on that request is scheduled for this afternoon.

In light of those procedural and legal moves, the Hennepin County canvassing board approved a resolution Monday directing local elections officials to sort all of their rejected absentee ballots and report to the county by the end of today how many appear to have been improperly rejected.

Hennepin County canvassing board members said they were told by the secretary of state's office that cities in the county reported that about 250 ballots were improperly rejected. Board members will meet Thursday to review information on the ballots submitted by local officials.

In St. Louis County, which says it has a total of 137 improperly rejected ballots, officials are waiting for the Supreme Court before deciding what to do with the ballots.

"We're going to wait to see what they want us to do here," said County Auditor Don Dicklich. "We need some consistent guidance."

Without legal guidance from the justices, Dicklich said he doesn't have the legal authority to even open the ballot envelopes.

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184