With thousands of frivolous challenges discarded, the state Canvassing Board today began the serious business of ruling on ballot disputes that could decide the U.S. Senate race between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and DFLer Al Franken.

Prodded by the board, the campaigns have abandoned most of the challenges they've made during the recount, allowing the panel to focus on perhaps fewer than 1,500.

At the heart of the matter is voter intent and how the five-member board will determine it by examining each remaining challenged ballot: Is a partially filled oval sufficient to cast a vote? How about an 'X' written near a candidate's name?

The board was dealing only with challenges by the Franken campaign today, which now number slightly fewer than 500. The board, which started the review at about 12:25 p.m., moved fairly slowly on the early challenges, completing five in the first 15 to 20 minutes. Of the first five challenges, the panel rejected three, restoring votes that had originally gone to Coleman. It upheld two challenges, one adding a vote to Franken and the other taking one away from Coleman.
The Star Tribune has performed its own analysis of the challenged ballots by relying on a virtual "canvassing board" of more than 26,000 readers who examined at least some of them. There appeared to be widespread consensus that Franken won slightly more disputes than Coleman, enough to theoretically erase the incumbent's narrow lead by late Monday.

The Star Tribune analysis relies on readers who chose to respond to its Ballot Challenge on StarTribune.com, and there is no assurance that partisans didn't distort the results. But large numbers of respondents from around the nation participated, and each of 15 respondents who viewed the largest number of disputed ballots gave Franken the edge by 3 to 5 percentage points. There was a broader consensus as well. Only 200 of the 6,500 ballots failed to draw a consensus from at least 75 percent of reviewers. Among the others, reviewers decided slightly more in favor of Franken.
Coleman campaign spokesman Mark Drake took issue with the analysis, calling it "unscientific, unreliable and significantly at odds with our own internal numbers. At the end of the day, all that truly matters is the recounting of the ballots legally cast by Minnesotans on election night. Once that process is completed, we anticipate the results continuing to show the re-election of Senator Coleman.:

The Star Tribune readers' conclusion is consistent with an analysis done by the Associated Press, which showed that Franken netted enough votes from several thousand easily resolved disputes to erase Coleman's lead.

Coleman held a 188-vote lead going into the board's review of the challenged ballots.

The Franken campaign reduced its total ballot challenges to 436, and the Coleman camp knocked its total down to about 980.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, chairman of the Canvassing Board, wants total challenges cut to fewer than 1,000 so the board can complete the review by Friday. He postponed the start of today's meeting from 9 a.m. until noon to give the Coleman camp more time to withdraw challenges.

Absentee ballots Even as the panel begins its review, a different front in the recount is opening in court over mistakenly rejected absentee ballots. The Franken campaign believes the ballots could give it an edge. The Coleman camp has asked the state Supreme Court to halt the sorting and counting of rejected absentee ballots.

On Monday, two justices ordered a hearing for Wednesday on the dispute. The order doesn't block county officials from sorting or counting absentee ballots before the hearing.

County officials last week were given permission by the Canvassing Board to sort and count mistakenly rejected absentee ballots. Hennepin County began doing so and set a deadline of today for the process to be completed.

Franken recount attorney Marc Elias noted that the Supreme Court did not grant the restraining order the Coleman camp had sought but gives both sides a chance to present their case.

Said Coleman campaign press secretary Luke Friedrich: "It is in everyone's best interest to step back, take a breath and wait for a clear directive before counting these ballots."

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210