In a drafty warehouse in northeast Minneapolis, Dave Nelson spent his Friday afternoon doing the political equivalent of watching paint dry.

"I've got to tell you, this is different," he said, taking a break from reading "Sagitarius Command," a sci-fi novel.

A dozen miles away, on the third floor of St. Louis Park City Hall, Sharon Shaffer was doing pretty much the same thing from lunchtime until the 4:30 p.m. closing time.

"This is new territory for me -- I've never done anything quite like this," she said.

Very few Minnesotans, it turns out, have ever done what Nelson, Shaffer and at least two dozen other supporters of Sen. Norm Coleman have been doing since the Senate race ended: They're standing watch over 2,885,399 ballots in the Senate race. They're on the lookout for monkey business.

"I've been involved in elections for more than 20 years and I've never seen anything like this," Nancy Stroth, the St. Louis Park City clerk, said about the observers. "I can understand why, when you consider how tight this race was."

Coleman's staffers and volunteers are trying to keep an eye peeled at least part of the time on the ballots in all of the state's 87 counties, said campaign manager Cullen Sheehan.

"We just want to ensure the ballots are secure -- I think all sides want to see that happen," he said.

Problems reported so far? "Nothing major I'm aware of," Sheehan said.

The Franken campaign declined to say whether it had deployed what are known as "ballot guards," but issued a written statement when asked about the topic.

It read: "We think protecting the ballots is very important and will take steps as we deem necessary to preserve ballot security."

The practice of hovering near ballots during weekday business hours, known as "guarding the ballots," is found in an obscure provision of state law that allows a candidate to "keep a continuous visual guard over the ballots." The candidate's ballot guards, in turn, are to remain under the eye of what is called "the custodian of the ballots" (an employee of the government agency that holds the ballots).

In St. Louis Park, Stroth evicted city workers from the employee lounge and is storing the ballots from all of the city's 17 precincts there, having installed a lock on the door for which she has the only key.

It's marked "OFFICIAL ELECTION ROOM" and everyone given access to it has to sign in before entering.

Shaffer, a St. Louis Park retiree, came on duty at noon Friday, the third Coleman surrogate to do so. "I sit here and make sure no one enters, and report anything that's not quite right," she said. So far, she said, nothing reportable had happened.

At the Minneapolis warehouse, Nelson, a retired Army vet who lives in Bloomington, also was having a quiet time.

"I was told we need to make sure the ballots are secured here and make sure nobody does anything to them," he said.

He was suspicious as he watched large metal ballot boxes being wheeled in Friday from a loading dock. "That raises a question, where they've been since Election Day," Nelson said. A city employee assured him that the boxes were empty.

Although the warehouse is locked, the security inside is somewhat less formal: A plastic chain-link fence marks the area beyond which candidates' ballot guards may not go.

"I just took it for granted I should stay behind the fence," Nelson said.

He said he was glad to volunteer for the work when a Coleman staffer called him, but conceded, "It's not that exciting, but I've got a book," waving the novel, "and another one out in the car," a Buick Park Avenue plastered with bumper stickers for Coleman, Erik Paulsen and John McCain.

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184