No one talks politics around the water cooler at the Minneapolis Elections Department.

"If we talk about things like that, it's about process, the numbers," said the city's chief elections official, Cindy Reichert. "We are decidedly nonpartisan."

Despite their best efforts, Minnesota's elections -- and the people who run them -- are in the spotlight as the recount continues in the U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken.

The enormous challenge of hand counting more than 207,000 ballots in the city is likely to stretch close to a Dec. 5 state deadline. On Thursday, the second day of the recount, the city added four more counting tables at a warehouse in northeast Minneapolis to speed up the process.

Reichert, who also is the assistant city clerk, has been the city's chief election official for three years, running a staff of six. She was the city clerk in St. Louis Park before that for about 10 years, administering elections as well. She said she has always considered herself a public servant.

"For me, my work style is that I'm an administrator at heart, I love databases, I love structure. I love process," she said.

The structure and process came under attack shortly after the Nov. 4 election when it became clear a recount would be required. An attorney for the Coleman campaign made a passing reference about 32 absentee ballots being locked in the trunk of Reichert's car. It raised emotions and suspicions and soon became the stuff of urban legend, joining the vernacular of hanging chads as the newest story of election shenanigans.

Trouble was, it wasn't true. The ballots were transported properly back to Minneapolis City Hall from a precinct, as required by regulations. And they weren't in Reichert's trunk. They weren't in Reichert's car at all.

"It's understandable that in the very stressful days following the election ... a rumor like that would snowball," Reichert says now. "I have to admit it wasn't very much fun for me to hear about it and read about it and know that it wasn't true."

Reichert gets high marks from her colleagues for her professionalism. But the trunk episode has stung, said Joe Mansky, Ramsey County's chief election manager.

"In our business, the perception of reality is really more powerful than reality itself," he said.

Reichert's next few days will be focused on ballots from the 131 precincts in Minneapolis. The stakes are high and the partisans from both the Coleman and Franken campaigns are intense. There have been no complaints from either camp about her work.

"To date it has been an open and fair process," said Pat Shortridge, a Coleman supporter who has monitored events at the warehouse site. "It's easy to be nonpartisan when the stakes aren't so high and the results aren't so close. This is the real test."

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636