As the U.S. Senate recount approaches another crossroad today, it appears that DFLer Al Franken's recently attained lead over Republican Sen. Norm Coleman could narrow to double digits.

Today, the state Canvassing Board is scheduled to award votes from thousands of challenges that each candidate had filed against his opponent's ballots but later withdrew. A draft list Monday by the secretary of state's staff about how those votes should be allocated showed Franken leading by 48 votes. At the end of last week, he was up by 251, the first time since the Nov. 4 election that he had an advantage.

Some decisions reflected on the draft list released Monday may be challenged by the campaigns at today's meeting.

In addition, disputes over absentee ballots, claims that other votes were counted twice and a number of still-unresolved ballot challenges could change the margin yet again in an election that shows no sign of being settled soon.

The list that will be presented to the Canvassing Board today appears to be in line with what the Franken camp had been saying. On Saturday, the campaign said its own tracking of challenges showed him leading by 35 to 50 votes.

"This is sort of in the ballpark of where we thought it was going to fall for a few days now," Franken spokesman Andy Barr said.

Coleman's campaign dismissed the latest count.

"Al Franken's 'lead' is artificial, and this process is still a long way from being complete," said campaign manager Cullen Sheehan. "We have no doubt that when these issues are properly resolved, Senator Coleman will be reelected to the Senate."

While nearly all of the challenges have been ruled on or dropped and votes allocated, the Coleman campaign may still challenge about a dozen ballots and the Franken campaign four when the Canvassing Board meets today, said Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann.

Other fronts

Ballot challenges are just one front in the fight for the Senate seat.

Today, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments from the Coleman campaign that perhaps 130 ballots, most from DFL strongholds, were counted twice.

Coleman lawyers say double-counting occurred in some cases involving ballots that could not be run through the electronic voting machines. When that happens, election officials are to fill out duplicate ballots that can be read by the machines, label the original and duplicate ballots, and clip them together.

But the Coleman campaign contends that the ballots in question included unmarked duplicates along with marked originals, both of which were subsequently tallied in the recount.

Franken recount attorney Marc Elias said that there is no evidence of double-counting and that there are other reasons to explain the discrepancies.

Another unknown is the impact of as many as 1,500 to 1,600 absentee ballots that may have been mistakenly rejected. The Supreme Court last week ordered the candidates and county elections officials to agree on a procedure for identifying and counting such ballots.

In a recount where the candidates seldom agree on anything, that might not be easy.

"We're trying," said Gelbmann, whose office is prodding the candidates to agree on a procedure. "It's like herding cats. We have not been successful as of yet."

Gelbmann said there also is concern that counting mistakenly rejected absentee ballots by precinct will effectively identify voters.

"You're going to take away the ability of at least dozens if not scores of individuals to have their vote private," Gelbmann said.

Gelbmann said the Supreme Court may want to consider a method for tallying mistakenly rejected absentee ballots that avoids this problem.

The court order calls for the counting to be done by Dec. 31.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210