Historians have called democracy a messy process. The disputed ballots scrutinized Wednesday in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race proved them right -- literally.

One voter's mark was so sloppy it looked "like a scribbled Mickey Mouse sideways," remarked Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin, a member of the state Canvassing Board reviewing the challenged ballots.

Despite confusion over impressionist ballot scrawlings, the five-member board seemed to find a groove Wednesday, dispatching most disputes with alacrity. Some took fewer than 15 seconds.

But another simmering dispute could slow the process when the board reconvenes this morning. Republican Sen. Norm Coleman's campaign contends that as many as 150 ballots were counted twice by local elections officials and suggests that many of those extra votes could have gone to Democrat Al Franken. It wants the board to eliminate any double-counting.

Franken's campaign dismisses the claim as "just a theory" advanced by a Coleman camp increasingly worried about the outcome of the canvass, and argues that the issue is beyond the scope of the board.

Most Canvassing Board members seemed to agree Wednesday that their job is to determine voters' intent on ambiguous ballots, not to investigate actions of local elections officials. Yet they will consider whether to explore the issue when they meet today.

State Supreme Court Justice G. Barry Anderson seemed the most sympathetic to Coleman's position. "I think it's very likely there was double counting," Anderson said.

The claim was advanced by Coleman campaign attorney Tony Trimble. He said that on election night, duplicates were made of folded mailed-in ballots that couldn't be tabulated by voting machines. Once the folded ballots are made into unfolded duplicates, they are fed into the machines, as required. But, Trimble said, some of the originals were later added to the tally during the recount.

Board member Eric Magnuson, who is Minnesota's chief justice, was leery of expanding the board's responsibilities. "We have a very narrow function here," he said.

Magnuson and other board members have advised the campaigns that they can go to court to resolve issues not dealing with voter intent, such as whether an original ballot and its duplicate were both counted. Neither Trimble nor Franken campaign lawyer Marc Elias has ruled out doing so.

An extra 150 votes could be pivotal should Coleman, who held a 215-vote advantage before the recount, see his lead slip away because of lost ballot challenges.

Resolving the challenges

In the past two days, the board has settled 420 ballot challenges of voter intent raised by Franken, helped in part by his decision to withdraw 79.

Typically, most challenges lose. On Tuesday and Wednesday, most of the Franken challenges were resolved in favor of Coleman, adding votes to the incumbent's column and increasing his margin, if only temporarily. By the same logic, Franken is expected to gain votes when the board takes up Coleman's ballot challenges.

Coleman has disputed 1,000 ballots, including the roughly 150 that Trimble says were double-counted. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie appealed late Wednesday to the Coleman campaign to reduce its challenge total to 500.

Ritchie insisted that the Canvassing Board will finish its task of determining voter intent on disputed ballots by Friday, and was prepared to deliberate "late at night" if necessary.

Another wild card in the canvass is whether either campaign will introduce more challenges even as others are settled. The Franken campaign has said it will consider adding 339 challenges dealing with potential election night irregularities if the board decides to investigate Coleman's claims of double-counting.

Ritchie noted that at the rate the board is resolving disputes -- about 50 per hour -- it would have to work 20 hours during the next two days to finish current challenges by Friday.

Perplexing ballots

While most challenges reviewed Wednesday were quickly resolved, others resembled Rorschach inkblot tests that left board members pondering their meaning.

The "Mickey Mouse" ballot referred to by Gearin was scribbled with an image that could be viewed as a cartoon mouse. It was tossed into the "other" pile -- containing ballots for neither Coleman nor Franken -- because the voter's intent was unclear.

A couple of ballots later, board members were presented with one that was marked squarely between the names of Coleman and Franken. "That could have been intentional," Ritchie cracked. No voter intent was discernible, the members ruled.

Numerous other voters marked their ballots partially filling ovals for Coleman and Franken, or between one of them and another candidate.

Another ballot had "Norm Coleman" written in a blank space near offices for the soil and conservation district while the ovals next to Coleman and other Senate candidates were empty.

Elias challenged the ballot, saying the voter really intended to pick Coleman for an elected position in the soil and conservation district. The board awarded the vote to Coleman.

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184 Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210 Kevin Duchschere • 651-292-0164