A wrinkle to the U.S. Senate recount was added today when the Secretary of State’s office asked county election officials to sort through an estimated 12,000 rejected absentee ballots.

Democrat Al Franken's campaign officials hailed the development as a "breakthrough" in their attempt to broaden the universe of ballots that will determine who wins the Senate seat currently held by Republican Norm Coleman.

Marc Elias, Franken's lead attorney, this afternoon called the campaign's attempt to include rejected absentee ballots "the centerpiece" of the campaign's effort to win the recount.

Out of an estimated 12,000 absentee ballots that were initially rejected, Elias estimated that as many as 1,000 could have been improperly tossed out.

In an e-mail, sent Monday afternoon to officials in all 87 counties, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann asked them to re-examine the ballots and sort them into five piles: Four would contain ballots that were rejected for reasons directly related to state law, while a fifth pile would contain ballots that do "not meet one of these four reasons, or if the reason used to reject the absentee ballot is not based on factual information."

The request stems from last week's meeting of the state Canvassing Board, whose members wrestled with, but stopped short of deciding, the issue of the rejected absentee ballots.

In his e-mail, Gelbmann said:

"Board members expressed an interest in knowing the number of Absentee Ballots that may have been mistakenly rejected.  In other words, the Board has heard anecdotal evidence of absentee ballots being rejected, even though the facts surrounding the ballot did not meet one of the four reasons stated in statute upon which an absentee ballot may be rejected."

His e-mail specifically did not ask elections officials to open or count the ballots contained in the so-called fifth pile. He also did not indicate what, if anything, the Canvassing Board would do with the ballots.

Gelbmann said the sorting of ballots should be done in a public setting where the Coleman and Franken campaigns can watch the process, adding that the campaigns will not be able to challenge any of the ballots.

He told the officials not to begin the examination before next Monday and to finish it no later than the close of business on Dec. 18. Gelbmann said the counties would be reimbursed for their expenses.

Fritz Knaak, Coleman's lead recount attorney, said Ritchie's office was not asking local election officials to count any of the five categories of rejected absentee ballots, and had written those instructions in bold type in its letter.  "They were not directing that those be counted, but they are being set aside.  And, of course, we're not surprised, and that's fine," he said.

Staff writer Mike Kaszuba contributed to this report.