How could a trickle of challenged ballots in the U.S. Senate recount quickly turn into a torrent that has soared to nearly 4,800?

The experience of Sherburne Country is instructive.

During Wednesday's state Canvassing Board meeting, Lucy Botzek, the county's deputy administrator, startled participants and observers alike when she said the Norm Coleman and Al Franken campaigns had challenged 801 of about 30,000 ballots that had been retabulated in her county.

She wasn't placing blame on either campaign. "Once one challenges, the other follows," she said after the board meeting. "They seem to be equally responsible here."

Coon Rapids resident Gene Cichowicz had a first-hand view of the rapid escalation, which he said happened almost spontaneously. He had volunteered to observe on behalf of Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota (CEIM), a nonpartisan group monitoring the recount.

Cichowicz said that, on Tuesday, "during the morning, there were hardly any [challenges]. At one table, the Coleman person challenged two, but the person supervising said there was nothing wrong with them, so they put them back.

"Around 2 o'clock it seemed to change, with this massive number of challenges. There were 44 at one table, and at another, I could see one side challenge 35, the other 22. That time, when the [candidates'] leaders came over, one said there was nothing wrong [with the ballots], but the other side said they were going to go with it.

"From then on, it just escalated, with the numbers going way up at all the tables. And I was close enough to see some of the ballots, and most of the time there didn't seem to be anything wrong with them. It was surprising to watch."

Mark Halvorson, CEIM director, said the dynamic is a familiar one, irrespective of who's doing the challenging. "As soon as one side escalates, the other side picks up, too, and it just goes up and up," he said.

But after the challenges ignited Tuesday, they seemed to subside Wednesday. When the county had finished recounting, the challenge total stood at 874.

"It appears there was some conversation about the challenges among the party representatives," Botzek said Wednesday. "They seem to have come to some agreement to be a little less labor-intensive."

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184