Let's assume the 32 disputed ballots in Minneapolis were legitimate. Let's assume the newly discovered 100 votes in Pine County -- all for Al Franken -- were just overlooked by a sleepy official, and the 100 votes found in Mountain Iron -- again, all for Franken -- were valid.

Let's suppose the trickle of votes moving inexorably in Franken's direction is just a function of a normal process, as Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's office assures us.

One fact remains troubling. The referee in Minnesota's hotly contested Senate race must act in a nonpartisan fashion, yet Ritchie came to office through a nationwide partisan strategy. He was elected in 2006 as part of a national campaign to ensure that Democrats could wield influence in precisely the sort of hair's breadth race we now have here.

Ritchie gained office with the help of the Secretary of State Project (SOS), an independent 527 group co-founded by former MoveOn.org leader James Rucker. SOS is based in San Francisco, and is funded in part by ultra-liberal kingmakers such as George Soros.

Why would Left Coast liberals take such a keen interest in a Minnesota state office?

In 2006, USA Today gave us the answer in an article headlined "Top vote counter becomes prize job; Democrats focus on key state post."

Secretary of state positions are a "new front" in the "battle for political control," the paper explained, because they are "the obscure but vital state offices that determine who votes and how those votes are counted."

"National Democratic groups ... are pouring resources" into secretary of state races in key swing states, in order to enhance their control in future tight elections, said the paper. Minnesota was one of the top six states targeted.

Ritchie was the SOS poster boy, and SOS co-founder Becky Bond took credit for his victory.

"Thanks to SoS Project donors, Minnesota's Mark Ritchie -- a true champion for democracy -- was able to defeat a two-term incumbent republican [sic] by less than five points," she wrote on the SOS website. "We helped close the gap and make the difference with cable television ads targeting women and seniors."

"I want to thank the Secretary of State Project and its thousands of grass roots donors for helping to push my campaign over the top," Ritchie wrote.

Along with Ritchie, SOS-supported secretary of state candidates won in Ohio, Iowa, New Mexico and Nevada in 2006. "Dollar for dollar, our model was one of the most effective political investments in the cycle," Bond wrote.

On the day before last week's election, the respected on-line journal Politico predicted that these SOS victories would bear fruit this year. "Democrats have built an administrative firewall designed to protect their electoral interests in five of the most important battleground states," Politico said. As a result, they are now "in a more advantageous position when it comes to the interpretation and administration of election law -- a development that could benefit Barack Obama if any of those states are closely contested."

That advantageous position could also benefit a Democrat in a pivotal Senate race, they might have added.

Ritchie said in an interview that he will be impartial in the Coleman-Franken recount. "Just two months ago, we ran two really great primary recounts, and I'm looking forward to the four recounts coming up," he said.

Thus far, Ritchie has shown no evidence of misconduct. But many Minnesotans are questioning the openness and transparency of the vote tally that just ended.

"The process must be above reproach," said Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague. "So far, that's not the case."

Brod points to Ritchie's criticism of Coleman for raising questions about changing vote totals. "Any candidate would have questions when tallies shift as they have, and Ritchie's one-sided criticism was inappropriate," she said. "It suggests a partisan tinge that does not assure confidence by either party."

Will our closely watched Senate contest result in more votes found in odd circumstances, or will it be a model of nonpartisanship? It's too soon to tell. What we do know is that the referee in the contest appears to be wearing the colors of one of the teams.

Katherine Kersten • 612-673-1774 kkersten@startribune.com