Like the election itself, the Senate recount has ended -- except that it hasn't.

At 11:29 a.m. Friday at the Wright County Government Center in Buffalo, state Elections Director Gary Poser pasted a sticker on one last challenged ballot and whispered, almost to himself: "We're done."

But not quite. Officials continued to search for 133 Minneapolis ballots that apparently are missing. And until those ballots are found or judged impossible to locate, the recount won't be over, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said Friday.

By mid-afternoon, Minneapolis officials had turned their elections warehouse inside out but failed to find the envelope containing the ballots.

Pending the fate of the missing ballots, the Star Tribune calculates that Republican Sen. Norm Coleman leads Democrat Al Franken by 192 votes -- a margin 23 votes narrower than the 215-vote lead that Coleman was awarded by the state Canvassing Board just before the recount began Nov. 19.

The Secretary of State's Office, leaving out the disputed precinct altogether, shows Coleman ahead of Franken by 687 votes.

The Franken campaign reached yet another conclusion -- Franken ahead by four votes -- by including a projection on 6,655 ballots challenged by both campaigns.

The Coleman campaign has challenged more ballots than the Franken campaign -- 3,375 vs. 3,280 -- although the two sides recently agreed to withdraw about 650 each.

The remaining challenges are expected to be the focus of a meeting between the campaign's lawyers next week, and a major part of the work facing the Canvassing Board when it meets on Dec. 16 to start reviewing those ballots and the recount.

Still to be decided is what to do with the unknown number of absentee ballots that election officials acknowledge were mistakenly rejected. Next Friday, the state board, armed with an opinion still to come from the Attorney General's office, will meet to discuss whether to count them.

About 60 of the state's 87 counties have volunteered to separate those ballots out of 11,000-plus absentee ballots to find out how many were kicked back for the wrong reasons.

In the process of searching Friday for the Minneapolis ballots thought to be missing, officials rummaging through a supplies box spotted a plastic bag containing 12 uncounted absentee ballots. Those ballots, which weren't included in the recount figures, will be forwarded to the Canvassing Board for resolution, Minneapolis spokesman Matt Laible said.

Disputes persist

Although the heavy-duty counting is over, in some ways the recount has only just begun -- a point you could read between the lines of remarks Friday by Ritchie.

"Today, we're celebrating the conclusion on time of the administrative recount. We're wanting desperately to find [the] final group of physical ballots so that we can tie it up completely ... and we're looking forward to this positive messaging that we're getting from the campaigns ... to withdraw a significant amount of the frivolous challenges that they've made," he said.

The last county to finish the job Friday was Wright County, where Franken picked up 81 net votes but also lodged 101 more challenges than Coleman (244 to 143). The last ballot tallied came from a voter in Hanover who, perhaps fittingly, chose neither Franken nor Coleman but third-party candidate Dean Barkley.

"We're happy to be part of history, we just didn't want to make history," said Bob Hiivala, Wright County's auditor-treasurer. "Everything was very calm, orderly and amicable."

Despite Ritchie's generally positive assessment of the recount, his office came under fire Friday from Fritz Knaak, the Coleman campaign's lead recount attorney.

Knaak criticized Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann for helping Minneapolis officials search Thursday for the apparently missing ballots and for later participating in a news conference with other officials on the matter.

Knaak said the Coleman campaign was never notified by Gelbmann about what he was doing. Besides, he said, it's not at all clear that the ballots really are missing. There may be other reasons why more votes were counted on Election Day than in the recount, he said.

"The fact that the secretary of state rushed to judgment to embrace the theory promoted by one campaign should be a cause of concern for that office to take a step back and evaluate its posture in these final hours of the recount," Knaak said.

Lead Franken recount attorney Marc Elias said that if Knaak doesn't believe the ballots are missing, he's the only one. He said he was confident they would be found, even if it took a while to locate them.

"Every Minnesota vote that was lawfully cast ought to be counted in this election. ... That's been our position since Day One, and it remains our position today," Elias said.

Elias announced that the Franken campaign had sent letters Friday to county auditors across the state asking that their canvassing boards not only identify absentee ballots they found to have been mistakenly rejected, but to open and count them much as Itasca County has done. He said the state Canvassing Board has made it clear that it has the authority to do it.

But Ritchie, who chairs the state board, said that the Franken campaign was acting "in an inappropriate way." Such action should await the guidance of the Attorney General's office and the judgment of the board when it meets on the issue next week, he said.

'The real test'

Since the first results on Election Day, Coleman has never trailed Franken in the unofficial state tallies. A Rasmussen Reports poll released Friday showed that 67 percent of Minnesota voters -- including a majority of Democrats -- expect that Coleman will eventually win the race, as opposed to 16 percent who say Franken will win. But 44 percent said it was also very likely that the winner won't be determined until after New Year's Day.

Ritchie said that Minneapolis officials will be allowed to continue to hunt for the 133 unaccounted-for ballots until the state board meets Dec. 16. If they don't turn up, the state board would have to decide what to do, he said; when ballots have gone missing in the past, he said, the machine count tabulated on Election Day has been used.

"The real test is in the end -- does the recount engender trust, so that the citizens of Minnesota believe in the outcome and that both candidates, as emotional as it is, [accept it] -- and I don't think we've got there yet," he said.

Staff writers Curt Brown, Bob von Sternberg and James Eli Shiffer contributed to this report. Kevin Duchschere • 651-292-0164