Minnesota won't know who won the contested U.S. Senate race until at least mid-December, but now the final arbiters for the recount have been named.

They include a cast of heavy-hitters topped by Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, a former law partner of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, three other high-ranking judges and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a DFLer, who made the selections Wednesday.

The freshly appointed state Canvassing Board will be charged with certifying vote totals Tuesday and, more important, settling differences over disputed ballots once local officials complete their recount.

The resolution of those disputed ballots may decide the winner of the closest Senate contest in the country, although a court challenge may still be in the offing.

For now, the grittiest, most challenging work will begin next Wednesday morning, when auditors, clerks, lawyers and volunteers gather in 120 locations across the state to methodically sort ballots, with lawyers from both campaigns at their elbows, in a process expected to last at least until Dec. 5.

Recount junkies will be able to view updates daily on a website the secretary of state's office will construct, and all recounts will be conducted in public places.

By Dec. 16, Ritchie said, the Canvassing Board -- which also includes Supreme Court Justice G. Barry Anderson, Ramsey County District Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin and Ramsey Assistant Chief Judge Edward Cleary -- will start ruling on challenged ballots one by one, in favor of either Republican Sen. Norm Coleman or Democratic challenger Al Franken. Votes for other candidates will not be included in the recount, and ballots where no voter intent can be determined will be set aside.

Ritchie said that, however long it takes, the recount will not be rushed. Whatever is produced, he said, has to be "absolutely, exactly correct."

In a detailed news conference to discuss the recount process, Ritchie also was forced to defend himself against GOP accusations that he is too partisan to oversee such a politically delicate task.

Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan accused Ritchie on Wednesday of taking sides in the recount dispute by going on television and talking about the campaign's "win-at-all-costs" mentality. Ritchie said his remarks were not aimed specifically at the Coleman campaign.

"I feel like campaigns ... have a winner-take-all, win-at-any-price point of view," Ritchie said. "That's the opposite of election administrators." The recount process, he said, "happens to have a lot of emotion to it, but it doesn't change our job, which is determining the intent of citizens who chose to participate in this election."

Ritchie has been the target of GOP fire ever since Coleman's lead began dwindling last week. What started as a 725-vote lead over Franken on the morning after the election shriveled in ensuing days and now stands at 206 votes out of 2.9 million cast.

Boosting public confidence

Ritchie is not the only secretary of state to feel heat in a close race. Ever since Florida's Katherine Harris found her career nearly buried by the hanging chads of that state's infamous 2000 presidential recount, secretaries of state have come under increased scrutiny.

The secretary of state is the chief election official in 37 of the 50 states, said Kay Stimson, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State in Washington, D.C. All are affiliated with political parties, but there are various wrinkles. In Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas, secretaries of state are political appointees, Stimson said. In Maine and New Hampshire, they're elected by legislators. In Alaska, Hawaii and Utah, the lieutenant governor oversees elections. And in Wisconsin, a nonpartisan chief election official oversees elections.

Stimson said a number of states have looked for ways to heighten public confidence in the wake of Florida and 2000. Colorado, for instance, bars the secretary of state from participating in political activities, and secretaries of state in some states have stopped serving on political committees and endorsing candidates.

Only valid ballots

One thing that won't change the Minnesota recount is any dispute over rejected absentee ballots. Ritchie said Wednesday that the Franken campaign's request last week to have 461 such ballots counted in Hennepin County can be resolved only in court, not by recount officials.

Ritchie said the recount will review only valid ballots cast, to determine voter intent. Absentee voters whose ballots were rejected can go to their county auditor, he said, or go to court themselves.

Ballot security will be tight, he said, but will be determined by the state's 87 counties. Some ballots will have to be transported to central locations for counting, he said, and local officials will be responsible for carrying out security measures prescribed by law.

Local officials will meet with Ritchie's staff today for additional training in recount procedures and some will have days to prepare. The enormous recount has sent local officials scrambling for volunteers and resources in the days leading up to the holiday season, resulting in some delays.

Sherburne County, for instance, won't begin its Senate recount until Nov. 25, two days before Thanksgiving. Auditor/treasurer Diane Arnold said that was the soonest she could get the county's board room, where a dozen officials will have to count 45,000 ballots before they can even think about turkey.

Arnold said this is her first election cycle as auditor. "This is major," she said. "I'm just taking it one step at a time."

Is she a little nervous?

"Aren't we all?" she asked, laughing.

Staff writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report. Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288