With each passing day, it's increasingly clear that more is at stake in the Norm Coleman-Al Franken recount than who will represent Minnesota in the 2009 U.S. Senate. The recount is also a test of the state's electoral process. Its integrity, efficiency, reliability and accountability are all on the line.

That test moves into a critical phase today, when the state Canvassing Board begins determining the fate of ballots whose marks produced disagreement between election judges and campaign agents over voter intent.

The campaigns have been shrinking the number of such ballots -- as well they should. Canvassing board member Judge Kathleen Gearin has been right to scold the two campaigns for allowing the challenged ballot number to swell unreasonably, at one point past 6,000. Frivolous challenges do more than waste officials' time and taxpayer treasure. They also exhibit a lack of seriousness that Gearin aptly labeled disrespectful to Minnesota voters.

Another part of the test is also incomplete -- and more troubling. Though reviews have yet to produce a final count, it appears that about 13 percent of absentee ballots set aside by election judges on Nov. 4 were rejected in error. That "fifth pile" of ballots appears to total more than 1,600 -- more than enough to determine the outcome of this achingly close election.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has the fitting response to an error rate that high: "It's unacceptable." The recount has laid bare a serious problem with absentee voting in Minnesota, one that needs correction before the next major election.

Better training of election judges would likely reduce the error rate to some extent. But Ramsey County's nationally respected elections administrator, Joe Mansky, argues that systemic change is needed. Minnesota's absentee ballot procedures are outdated, established when few voters cared to vote in absentia or in advance of Election Day.

That's changed. About one out of 10 Minnesota voters used the absentee method this year, making it resemble the early voting option now offered in at least 31 states.

But it's not early voting, in a key respect. Absentee ballots are not fed directly into counting machines at a central location as soon as they are received. Minnesota absentee ballots are sealed in envelopes with strict requirements about signatures and the lack thereof, then delivered to a voter's polling place for processing late on Election Day. In that set of requirements lies too much potential for human error.

Mansky is urging the 2009 Legislature to permit the centralized counting of absentee ballots. He also recommends that overseas voters be permitted to e-mail their ballots back to the country.

Those are sound ideas. The trick will be to adopt them while preserving an option Minnesota voters have now: They can vote as absentees, then come to the polls on Election Day and replace their first ballots with fresh ones. Minnesotans saw in 2002, when tragedy altered the U.S. Senate race days before the election, how valuable that option can be.

Inevitably, digital bytes will replace paper in election registration and record-keeping. That change should help Minnesota gain more of the advantages of early voting, without losing the opportunity to amend a ballot on Election Day.

The Senate recount may be trying Minnesotans' patience. But by revealing weaknesses in the state's election laws and procedures, it is also producing something of lasting value, noted Ohio State University election law professor Edward Foley when he visited the Humphrey Institute last week. It is -- provided this state's election stewards pay heed, and act to make the weak spots stronger.