Confusion over election rules and the crush of Election Day business caused local officials to mistakenly disqualify numerous ballots that remain uncounted to this day, an elections expert testified Friday in the trial over Minnesota's U.S. Senate recount.

The argument that valid but excluded ballots still exist, and should be counted, is the centerpiece of Republican Norm Coleman's court strategy as he challenges the recount results.

The state Canvassing Board counted 933 previously rejected absentee ballots before it certified recount results showing DFLer Al Franken with a 225-vote advantage. But other ballots that were wrongly excluded because of errors and varying standards at local levels have not been counted, said Ramsey County elections chief Joe Mansky.

In some cases, election workers wrongly rejected absentee ballots because signatures accompanying them didn't appear to match those on applications, even though discrepancies can be explained by, say, the shaky hands of elderly voters, he said.

"It's a very hard thing to do because we aren't signature experts," Mansky said.

Other times, he said, election judges rejected absentee ballots for reporting an incorrect driver's license number, even though state law does not require one to be submitted with the ballots.

And some new voters put their registration form inside the secrecy envelope containing their absentee ballot, resulting in the form being overlooked and the ballot rejected as coming from an unregistered voter, he said.

In Ramsey County, Mansky said he believes 62 rejected absentee ballots that were not tallied by the Canvassing Board should have been counted.

During a break in Friday's hearing before the three-judge panel hearing the case, Coleman seized on Mansky's testimony to bolster his argument for a broad review of all 11,000 remaining rejected absentee ballots from the election.

"There's no question there were a number of individuals who were validly registered ... their votes should be counted," he said. "I can't tell you how many."

But hundreds of the remaining rejected ballots were vetoed by the Coleman and Franken campaigns under rules established by the Minnesota Supreme Court. The high court, in ordering a review of rejected absentee ballot envelopes, required agreement by county elections officials and the two campaigns for any of them to be opened and counted.

Franken attorney Marc Elias has said that the "vast majority" of the 11,000 remaining rejected ballots were properly discarded.

Voters want ballots counted

In another development Friday, a group of 61 voters asked the panel to have their rejected absentee ballots automatically counted.

The Franken campaign has supported inclusion of the ballots. The Coleman campaign rejected 13 of them during the recount.

Coleman lawyer Jim Langdon told the judges that his candidate no longer objects to any of the ballots, saying they share characteristics with thousands of ballots that Coleman wants to count.

If the judges approve, the ballots could be opened, counted and tallied for each candidate before the contest is resolved.

Franken's lawyers objected Friday to another group of seven voters who hope to intervene in the trial, saying it's too late for them to participate actively in the court contest.

But their lawyer, Bruce Kennedy, says they want a role because neither campaign has their best interests at heart, public expressions about voter rights notwithstanding.

"My concern is some of these folks were rejected by the Coleman campaign, some of them were rejected by the Franken campaign," Kennedy told the judges. "...There already has been in my opinion a certain amount of profiling on how they may vote, as represented by what happened to their votes before. Their interests are not adequately represented by the existing parties."

After the hearing, Kennedy said the two candidates' "primary concern ... is likely getting a net improvement of 200-plus votes or defending against that."

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210