WEEDS IN THE GARDEN?

Do they require a new election?

The Senate contest ruling's use of one phrase -- "garden variety" -- seems to have gotten Norm Coleman's goat. He referred to it, and disputed it, repeatedly during an hourlong briefing with the Star Tribune Editorial Board Thursday.

The three district judges who unanimously ruled last Monday against Coleman's bid to overturn Al Franken's Senate election lead used the garden analogy to characterize the inconsistencies in administering absentee ballots last Nov. 4 that were uncovered during a seven-week trial. Coleman said he will appeal the panel's ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and intends to formally file for the high court's review today or Tuesday.

Variations in the handling of absentee ballots that the judges likened to "'garden variety' errors or inconsistencies" are actually serious violations of the constitutional principle of equal protection under the law, Coleman said. What's more, those variations arise from "philosophically based" differences among the various counties, he charged -- a serious allegation I was hearing for the first time.

"In Minneapolis, the idea is to enfranchise the voter. ... In Minneapolis, if you're alive, you haven't voted before, you've signed that affidavit that under penalty of perjury of violating the law, they're presuming you're not a lawbreaker, you're a registered individual, we're going to count your vote. In other places, they are going to take a very strict standard. Minnesota is blessed with one standard, a good standard. But the application of that standard depends on where you live."

He added: "I'm a Republican. I love local control. But this is not zoning. This is an election," he said.

Whether the inconsistencies in absentee ballot administration on Nov. 4 rose to a constitutionally intolerable level is the main question Coleman's appeal will put to the state's high court. The court's answer will register all over the country -- and not just because of how the outcome will affect the partisan composition of the Senate. Every state relies on local officials to administer elections. Every state assigns those local officials some discretion in processing ballots. If Minnesota's local variations are enough to void an election, the courts may find similar claims about local inconsistency arising every time a major election winds up close.

LORI STURDEVANT

CORRECTION

The April 16 counterpoint. "Lynch's plan is bad for patients," misidentified one of its authors. Brenda Spanovich is the president of the Minnesota Dental Assistants Association.