Franken lead at 50; absentee ballots still must be countedby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio,
Brian Bakst, Associated Press
Democrat Al Franken increased his lead in the Minnesota Senate recount to 50 votes over Republican Sen. Norm Coleman. Franken netted a few more votes after the State Canvassing Board reviewed several more ballot challenges from the two campaigns. The battle now shifts to those wrongly rejected absentee ballots.
St. Paul, Minn. — Al Franken hasn't met with reporters for weeks, but following the Canvassing Board meeting Franken released a statement saying he's glad to be ahead, that it appears he's on track to win, and that he's ready to go to work in Washington.
Franken recount attorney Marc Elias did speak with reporters.
"We're absolutely thrilled with where we stand," said Elias. "We began this process many weeks ago. We were done on election night. We gained votes in the canvass, and then we began the recount saying we would take things one step at a time. And now with everything except for the absentee ballots, we are leading by 50 votes."
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid shares the Franken campaign's optimism. A statement issued by Reid's office yesterday said it appears Franken will win.
Not surprisingly, the Coleman campaign has much different take on where things stand.
Following the Canvassing Board meeting, Coleman attorney Tony Trimble reminded reporters the Coleman campaign still thinks upwards of 100 ballots were counted twice. Given that position, Trimble strongly suggested that a Coleman election court challenge is in the offing.
"We're faced with an artificial Franken lead of double digits is all," said Trimble. "There are 100 double-counted ballots -- actually 110 -- that will wipe out that lead and keep Coleman justifiably in front, and that's where we stand today."
Regardless of what the Coleman campaign decides regarding a court challenge, the work of the initial ballot counting and challenging is over. The focus now is on which wrongly rejected absentee ballots should be included in the recount.
Local election officials from around Minnesota have come up with nearly 1,350 absentee ballots they believe were wrongly kept out of the initial count. The Minnesota Supreme Court has ordered that only the ones that both campaigns also agree were improperly excluded can be counted.
Local officials kicked off a series of meetings all over Minnesota today, for campaign officials to either accept or reject ballots those local officials determined should have been counted.
The Secretary of State's office says only the pool of about 1,350 rejected absentees can be considered by the two campaigns, because both failed to meet a Monday afternoon deadline to agree to add more ballots.
Still, the Coleman campaign has demanded that upwards of 650 rejected absentees be added to the review pile.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann told the Canvassing Board there were problems as the review process got underway, because in some cases the Coleman campaign was insisting new ballots be added.
"Things are not going as smoothly as we hoped," said Gelbmann. "We will continue work with the local officials and the candidates, to try and iron out some of these disagreements."
The sorting process breezed along in some sites and was choppy in a few others.
Sherburne County officials ran through its 18 ballots and the campaigns allowed 15 to move ahead for counting. Beltrami, Scott and Carver counties also made headway.
In Anoka County, the review never got started because the two campaigns couldn't agree on the universe of ballots to consider.
Coleman's camp pressed for a bigger pool and Franken's representatives wouldn't go beyond the 35 ballots officials previously identified as being eligible for counting.
"It's up to the campaigns. There's nothing we can do," said the county's elections manager, Rachel Smith.
She said they could try again Wednesday when the process becomes clearer.
Trimble said the Coleman campaign was troubled by inconsistencies from county to county.
"We're seeing the entire process becoming chaotic and questionable," he said during a midday conference call with reporters.
In cases where one side objects, the ballot is set aside and a voter can petition the Supreme Court to allow the ballot to count.
In St. Louis County, Coleman's campaign challenged the inclusion of dozens of the 161 ballots that the county determined were improperly rejected.
One of the Coleman challenges belonged to Duluth resident Mary Bell. She told the Duluth News Tribune that her husband served as her witness on the absentee ballot but put a date on the outside of the envelope that didn't match hers.
"He's in the doghouse now," Bell said with a laugh. "But it does make me angry that my vote might not get counted because of this, that they are trying to stop it from being counted."
She wouldn't say who got her Senate vote. That's a common mystery with these ballots because they remain sealed.
Coleman attorney Tony Trimble insists the rules do not prevent him from adding ballots at this stage. Trimble accused the Secretary of State's office of siding with Franken on the issue.
"The Secretary of State and Mr. Gelbmann, as the deputy administering this at this point, has gone to join himself at the hip with the Franken campaign," said Trimble.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie was emphatic that the rules are clear, and that because the two campaigns did not come to agreement to add ballots by yesterday afternoon, only those identified as wrongly rejected by local officials can be considered.
"It is not that complicated of a rule," said Ritchie. "It is under the order of the Supreme Court of Minnesota, and it's a very straightforward thing to read and interpret."
Despite those problems agreeing on absentee ballots, Ritchie said he's confident the work will continue on schedule, and that his office will have the ballots that both sides think should be opened and counted by this Friday's deadline.
Ritchie says his office is planning to count the ballots on Saturday. The Canvassing Board will then reconvene Monday afternoon to begin reviewing any absentee ballot challenges.
Ritchie says the board could finish its work as soon as Monday, depending on how many challenges it will have to review.
While the Canvassing Board will sign a certificate noting which candidate got the most votes, it does not constitute an official certificate of election.
That must come from Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, with a countersignature from Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat.
State law appears to prevent one from being issued if the election winds up in court within a week of the Canvassing Board's action.
- All Things Considered, 12/30/2008, 5:20 p.m.