The U.S. Senate recount took two abrupt turns Tuesday, both boosting the prospects of DFLer Al Franken.

Franken unexpectedly picked up 37 votes due to a combined machine malfunction and human error on Election Day that left 171 Maplewood ballots safe, secure but uncounted until Tuesday's final day of recounting in Ramsey County. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's office immediately asked county officials to explain what had happened, and U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman's campaign said it sent its own experts to Ramsey County to review the situation and said it was "skeptical about [the ballots'] sudden appearance."

By the end of Tuesday, with 93 percent of the total vote recounted, the Republican's lead stood at 303 votes with the state Canvassing Board set to finalize results Dec. 16. More than 6,000 ballots have been challenged by the two campaigns, with Coleman challenging 183 more than Franken.

Two large metro counties, Scott and Wright, are among four counties scheduled to begin their recounts today.

The day's other news -- which Franken's campaign quickly described as a "breakthrough" -- came when Ritchie's office asked local election officials to examine an estimated 12,000 rejected absentee ballots and determine whether their rejection fell under one of four reasons for rejection defined in state law. The Secretary of State's office asked that ballots that were rejected for something other than the four legal reasons be placed into a so-called "fifth category."

The fifth category, Ritchie's office said, could also include absentee ballots rejected for reasons that were "not based on factual information."

Ritchie's office, while stressing that the ballots be examined but not counted, asked that the task be completed by Dec. 18.

The move appeared to give at least some new life to the Franken campaign's longstanding effort to add to the recount what it estimates are as many as 1,000 improperly rejected absentee ballots.

Ritchie was not available Tuesday to elaborate on his office's instructions and the other four Canvassing Board members, all of whom are judges, declined to comment.

Significance debated

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann said the action was taken by Ritchie's senior staff without consulting with Ritchie. He said that because Ritchie's office was not entirely clear on what the Canvassing Board had directed it to do last week, they reviewed a tape of the meeting. "It was very clear," said Gelbmann, referring to the board, "... they wanted to know how many ballots were in the five categories."

The letter to local election officials comes as the Canvassing Board awaits a state attorney general's opinion on whether the board has the authority to count the ballots in the fifth pile, or if that is something that only can be ordered by a court.

Fritz Knaak, Coleman's lead recount attorney, minimized the impact of the move and 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.

Franken's campaign heralded the news as a significant development, and said it came on a day when the campaign's own internal recount showed that Coleman's lead had dwindled to 50 votes. "[This] process is not complete until every vote is counted. And today's directive is an important step," said Andy Barr, Franken's communications director.

Marc Elias, Franken's lead recount attorney, also said there was no significance to the campaign's decision to hold its daily briefings this week for reporters in Washington, D.C., a move Knaak described as further evidence that Franken's overall strategy was to have the U.S. Senate ultimately decide the race.

"I'm presuming he's strategizing with Democrats about his Senate floor strategy to ignore the will of Minnesota voters," said Knaak.

The U.S. Constitution gives each house of Congress broad authority to judge the elections and qualifications of its members.

Operator error blamed

Ramsey County's recount problem caught many by surprise.

County election officials said Tuesday the problem started on Election Day morning at the Hazelwood Fire Station in Precinct 6 in the heart of Maplewood. When a ballot counter kept jamming, officials called for a runner to swap out the broken counter with one that worked.

By then, 171 people had voted and their ballots had been fed into the ballot box. Ninety-one of those votes were cast for Franken, 54 for Coleman and 26 for other candidates.

When the new counter replaced the one that malfunctioned, officials said an election judge should have re-fed the 171 ballots back in so they would be counted on the official tape. Instead, they sat in the ballot box and then in secured transfer cases until they were discovered by recount officials Tuesday at the Ramsey County recount site on Plato Blvd.

The error was blamed on an election judge's failure to follow proper procedures, according to Karen Guilfoile, Maplewood's director of city services. She stressed that all the votes were properly cast and securely protected the last month.

A second election judge error in the same precinct had Coleman observers wondering why there were 31 more ballots than voters who had signed in on Election Day. Guilfoile said the mistake involved absentee voters who properly sent in their registration cards, but whose names judges failed to record on the voting rolls on Election Day.

Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky said the discovery of 171 ballots at the end of the county's 278,000-ballot recount proves the system works -- even when recounting 40,000 ballots a day as they did in Ramsey County.

"Our object here is to make sure every ballot gets counted as it was cast by the voter," Mansky said. "If we pick up some ballots that are not properly counted on Election Night, so much the better. That's a good thing. I don't see any downside."

The final Ramsey County recount numbers showed Franken picking up 70 net votes, including the 37 discovered Tuesday, in what has long been a DFL stronghold. Slightly more than 400 votes in the county have been challenged by the two campaigns.

Mansky, meanwhile, said the memo Tuesday from Ritchie's office regarding rejected absentee ballots could actually help Coleman, who lives in Ramsey County and spent eight years as St. Paul's mayor. "One would think Coleman would be a possible beneficiary" if the rejected absentee ballots are allowed in, Mansky said.

Staff writer Bob von Sternberg and Washington correspondent Mitch Anderson contributed to this report. Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673 Curt Brown • 612-673- 4767