More than five months since Election Day, the marathon fight for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota enters another phase today as 400 previously rejected absentee ballots are heading from counties across the state to St. Paul for opening and counting.

And while the vote totals are sure to change for the contenders -- Republican Norm Coleman and DFLer Al Franken -- there appears to be little chance that Franken's current lead of 225 votes will be overcome through this batch of ballots.

The ballots newly in play were argued over during a seven-week trial following the recount that gave Franken his current edge.

Coleman wanted a far larger pile counted and is pledging an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, Minnesota Secretary of State officials, under the direction of the three-judge panel that presided over the trial, will inspect the absentee ballots. While some might be rejected yet again, most are likely to be counted and added to the candidates' vote totals.

The judges still must rule on a number of other motions, but the absentee ballots were considered to be the key issue in the outcome of the trial.

One home, different results

In a home near McGregor, Minn., the ballot tally tells the story of the recount. The count stands as follows: two absentee ballots rejected and one accepted -- maybe.

Tim Stocke, whose multiple sclerosis makes him a prime example of the need for absentee voting, got a reprieve last week, when his rejected ballot became one of the 400 that judges in the recount trial decided to consider for opening and counting.

Not so for the votes of Karen Stocke, Tim's wife, or Karen's aunt, Jessie Zirkle, who all share a lake home outside McGregor in north-central Minnesota. A combination of good intentions, faulty assumptions and misinformation conspired to ensure that the two women's ballots remained rejected.

The Stockes' story illustrates a central fact of the prolonged race between Republican Norm Coleman and DFLer Al Franken, which Franken has led by 225 votes since the recount ended in early January. Some absentee ballots got counted while others did not, as voters and officials wrestled with complicated rules with varying degrees of success.

Questions linger -- and courts still may be called upon to decide -- whether what happened was fair or even constitutional.

Karen Stocke, for her part, is not happy.

"I believe in voting and my right to vote, and to have it just thrown out -- that upset me," she said. "And then we had to fight to get Tim's in there, too. I was willing to do anything to get it counted."

During the election trial, the lawyers liked to say that every ballot tells a story, and the Stockes' ballots tell several.

Tim Stocke, 53, operated heavy equipment for the University of Minnesota before multiple sclerosis made him an invalid. Karen Stocke, 54, works occasionally in the schools and has landed a job with the Census Bureau, but much of her time is spent caring for her husband and looking after Zirkle, a retired Wisconsin teacher in her 80s who is legally blind and moved in with them last summer.

Last fall, Karen Stocke called Aitkin County to request absentee ballots for all three of them. She helped her husband, for whom she has power of attorney, fill his out.

"I gave him the choices and he said, 'I want that one,'" Karen recalled. "And so then I marked it the way he wanted it."

She signed it with his name and her own, writing "power of attorney" next to her signature.

What she doesn't recall is whether she filled in the witness box, where she should have included her own name and address. A county staffer told her each of them could serve as the other's witness, she said, but "she didn't say I had to record that on the ballot."

Tim was properly registered to vote, but it turned out that Karen was not, since four years had elapsed since she last voted. Because Zirkle was a new resident, Karen got voter registration cards for her aunt and herself and mailed them to the county, which received them Oct. 16.

But they missed the deadline to get on the preprinted voter roster, and they weren't entered as registered voters until after the election, according to records in the secretary of state's office. Apparently, had Karen sent the registration cards with the ballots two weeks later, the ballots might have been accepted.

All three of the absentee ballots were rejected. For Karen and her aunt, it was because they weren't considered registered. Karen asked an Aitkin County election official to explain why her husband's ballot was kicked back.

"He said we should have had a judge or somebody witness me doing it for him so that they could see I wasn't coercing him for what I wanted," she said.

Campaigns intervene

Sometime after the election, a worker for the Franken campaign called and asked Karen about Tim's ballot and whether she would be willing to affirm that she had signed for him after giving him free rein to mark the ballot as he chose.

In February, Coleman's list of 3,687 rejected absentee ballots included both Stockes and Zirkle among 21 voters' ballots from Aitkin County that his campaign believed should have been counted. The former senator, behind in the recount, was working hard to get as many rejected absentee ballots counted as possible.

Then in early March, a Franken list suggested that Tim and Karen Stocke's ballots lacked evidence of being legally cast. As for Zirkle, the Franken list also noted there was no proof she was registered.

Zirkle was the only one of the three who made Coleman's final list of ballots that he hoped to have considered. And Tim Stocke was the only one to make Franken's final list.

Now, Tim's single ballot will represent the entire Stocke household when the judges sort through the final ballots this week.

Whether Tim's gets counted in the end could depend on yet another uncertainty -- the judges' final interpretation of the rules for witnesses. Their ruling last week indicates that "the voter's absentee ballot must be witnessed by a registered Minnesota voter." And Karen was ruled as unregistered.

Three votes for...

Today, Tim's original ballot envelope, along with 399 others, will be delivered to the secretary of state's office, to let judges examine them to decide whether the ballots were legally cast. During the trial, only photocopies of the ballot envelopes were used, and the judges are hoping that the originals will help them decide which of the disputed votes should be counted.

On Tuesday, staffers from the secretary of state's office will separate voting materials to preserve ballot secrecy and then pass the stack over to state election director Gary Poser, who will count the votes one by one. The process will occur in front of the judges in the same St. Paul courtroom, the Minnesota Supreme Court's, where the seven-week trial was held.

Amid all the complexities, one point can be missed: Just whom did the Stocke household vote for?

Three votes for Franken, Karen Stocke said. "We're all Democrats."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. • 651-292-0164 • 651-222-1210