The tedious-but-critical process of reviewing unopened ballots that could decide Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race resumed today, with Hennepin and Ramsey counties among those undertaking the task.

In Ramsey County, election officials and representatives of the Norm Coleman and Al Franken campaigns were reviewing 133 unopened absentee ballots that the county believes were wrongly rejected. As of mid-day, the reviewers had gone over 108 and agreed to send 67 to the Secretary of State’s office to be opened, counted and added to the results.

In Hennepin County, Democrat Al Franken’s campaign quickly blocked an attempt by Sen. Norm Coleman to add ballots to the 329 rejected absentee ballots county officials were ready to consider.

“We object to each of those,” David Lillehaug, a Franken recount attorney, said to the 170 ballots Coleman wanted to add to the total.

Bill McGinley, a Coleman attorney, offered to include 30 ballots Franken wanted to add to the total if Franken’s lawyers agreed to add the 170 ballots Coleman wanted -- but Lillehaug nixed that offer too.

“We ask that you reach agreement,” said Jill Alverson, the county auditor, who said the county would not consider any extra ballots unless the two campaigns agreed to add them.

So with no agreement, the two campaigns watched as county officials slowly went through each of the 329 ballots, starting with 38 ballots in Bloomington, the county’s second largest city.  After nearly an hour, the campaigns accepted 26 ballots from Bloomington and rejected 12 others.  Of the 12 rejections, the Coleman campaign accounted for eight, and Franken blocked the other four.



DFLer Franken currently holds an unofficial 49-vote lead over Republican incumbent Coleman, pending the counting of whatever absentee ballots are added to the mix.

Under a court ruling, the counties and campaigns must agree on which ballots were wrongly rejected, and those will be sent to the Secretary of State’s office, which will count them and give the results to the state Canvassing Board to review Monday. Before this week's review, local election officials had identified 1,346 ballots statewide that may have been wrongly rejected.

In Ramsey County, 26 of the 41 ballots that were held back because of objections from the two campaigns came from New Brighton. In those instances, absentee voters were not registered or not registered at their current addresses but given materials that assumed that they were.

The atmosphere in St. Paul was civil and cooperative this morning, just a day after the recount battle had raged from Hastings to Washington, with Democrats edging closer to declaring victory for Franken and campaign lawyers sparred over counting hundreds of rejected absentee ballots at meetings across the state.

"At this stage, it appears that Franken will be certified the winner by the state Canvassing Board," Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday afternoon.  "We're keeping abreast of the situation and will make a decision with regard to Senate action at the appropriate point in the process."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., went further, saying that if the Canvassing Board declares a winner on Monday, the Senate should "consider seating that person pending litigation."

That brought a sharp retort from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who suggested the GOP will try to block any effort by Democrats to seat Franken before all legal issues in the recount are settled.

Under Minnesota law, the governor and secretary of state can issue a certificate of election officially declaring a winner only after any legal contests are resolved.

A protracted court battle seemed more likely than ever Tuesday as the Coleman campaign attempted to have counties reconsider 654 absentee ballots that local officials have said were correctly rejected.

The Franken campaign, some counties and the secretary of state oppose that move, saying the absentee ballot review should focus instead on the 1,346 that county officials say were improperly rejected.

Those ballots come from precincts that mostly favored Franken in the Nov. 4 election, while the 654 came from areas more favorable to Coleman.



Sparring in Anoka

At a meeting Tuesday in Anoka, Coleman lawyer Chris Tiedeman said the 1,346 ballots that the counties say were improperly rejected shouldn't be counted unless the other 654 are reconsidered. Franken lawyer Steve Kaplan replied, "Let me cut to the chase. We're not going to agree to any of the 654. The 654 is from left field."

Anoka County elections manager Rachel Smith sized up the situation. "I don't want to waste anybody's time here," she said, after it soon became apparent that the two campaigns were not close to reaching agreement. The meeting broke up later with no agreements.

Because of the requirement that all parties concur on which rejected absentee ballots should be counted, disagreements could prevent hundreds of ballots that may have been improperly rejected from being sent to the Secretary of State's office to meet Friday's deadline.

Also Tuesday, the Canvassing Board approved the final allocation of all challenged ballots in the recount battle, which nudged Franken's unofficial lead over Coleman to 49.

Afterward, Franken said in a statement: "As it appears that we're on track to win, I want Minnesotans to know that I'm ready to get to work for them in Washington on Day One."

But the Coleman campaign threatened last week to sue if Franken is declared the winner. The senator's camp has claimed that more than 100 votes in largely Democratic precincts were counted twice. And on Tuesday, Coleman attorney Tony Trimble said the campaign might also sue over rejected absentee ballots.

Skirmishes, some progress

Hastings was the locale Tuesday for the review of rejected absentee ballots from Dakota County.

It remained unclear whether the parties would get through the 174 ballots from the county that are part of the review by the end of today. It also was unclear whether another 80 ballots that Coleman wants reconsidered would be reviewed.

As for 25 Scott County ballots that were part of the review, the campaigns agreed to send 11 on to the secretary of state and rejected 14 others.

In St. Louis County, election officials turned down the Coleman campaign's request to have about 30 absentee ballots added to the 161 they had already identified as being wrongly rejected. In the end, it was agreed that 101 ballots would be sent to the Secretary of State's office for counting.

At a meeting in Bemidji, Beltrami County officials and campaign representatives reviewed eight absentee ballots that had been judged wrongly rejected and agreed to send seven to St. Paul.

In Elk River, Sherburne County officials and campaign representatives looked at 18 ballots and forwarded 15. Three ballots were rejected by one or the other of the campaigns because of the lack of a signature.

Staff writer Kevin Diaz contributed to this report. • 651-292-0164 • 651-222-1210 • 651-222-1673 • 1-800-266-9648