Coleman and Franken: Fighting over the Minnesota Recount

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(l. to r.): Brad Barket / Getty; Kevin Dietsch / UPI Photo / Landov

Franken, left, and Senator Coleman

As Minnesota's senatorial recount is about to start, there is clearly no love lost between the staffs of Republican Senator Norm Coleman and his Democratic challenger, Al Franken. Weekend press conferences by staffers and lawyers on both sides lobbed accusations at one another, declaring that it was their opponents who were undermining the integrity of Minnesota's election process — a reputation the state is particularly proud of. But what politician would do otherwise? Coleman led Franken by only 206 votes when the unofficial count ended last week. At stake is the size of the Democratic majority in the Senate and the Dems' ability to defeat Republican filibusters.

In the first of the dueling press conferences, Fritz Knaak, Coleman's head recount attorney, accused Franken's campaign of employing "Florida-like tactics" by seeking the names of voters whose absentee ballots were rejected. Reporters then rushed to Franken's headquarters a few miles down the road to hear Franken spokesman Andy Barr say the Coleman campaign was once again resorting to "baseless charges and innuendo."

At issue was a lawsuit Franken filed on Thursday in Ramsey County District Court seeking to obtain the names of voters whose absentee ballots were rejected. The Franken campaign hopes to submit the ballots to the State Canvassing Board for consideration; it sued after Ramsey County officials asserted that the data was private. Knaak insisted that by suing, the Franken campaign is violating the privacy of voters. Barr in turn argued the Franken campaign simply wants to ensure that every vote is counted. A judge is expected to issue a ruling on Monday. The Franken campaign believes these ballots, part of an unprecedently large number of absentee ballots inspired by the campaign of Barack Obama, may hold the margin of victory for its candidate.

The recount, which will cost taxpayers roughly $87,000, promises to be arduous. The State Canvassing Board will certify elections results on Tuesday and begin the recount on Wednesday. For the recount, election officials in 110 locations across the state will analyze by hand each of the nearly 3 million ballots to determine voters' intent. (Minnesota uses optical scanners, and many voters haphazardly filled in the intended ovals, didn't do so at all or otherwise improperly marked their ballots.) Thousands of party representatives will literally be peering over the officials' shoulders to challenge any apparent discrepancy. By law, officials must place challenged ballots in a separate pile for consideration by the State Canvassing Board. Secretary of state Mark Ritchie chairs the five-member board, which also includes two Minnesota Supreme Court Justices and two Ramsey County District Court judges.

On Saturday the Coleman campaign accused Ritchie, who, like Franken, belongs to the Democratic-Farmer-Labor coalition, of "breaching neutrality" by saying that the State Canvassing Board would probably consider taking up the tossed absentee ballots. Ritchie has vowed to hold regular press conferences during the recount. "The whole world is watching to see if we're living up to our reputation as Minnesota — our brand," Ritchie says. "Accuracy is the only measurement by which we can determine who won this election." Ritchie does not expect the recount to be completed until at least Dec. 19. If the results are a tie, the contest could be decided by a coin toss.

Yet if the trend of the latest voting count continues — Coleman initially led by 725 votes, but that dwindled to just over 200 votes — Franken may be in the more favorable position. A recently completed Dartmouth study of the race argued that the roughly 34,000 residual votes — defined as undervotes, in which a ballot has not been fully filled out; or overvotes, in which more choices than were allowed were selected — could decide the election for Franken, because those votes are historically cast primarily by left-leaning voters. "With the voter who tends to pull the lever for Democrats, there's a little less dexterity," says Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, who is familiar with the study.

But Jacobs says he does not expect a huge shift in recounting residual votes. "The bigger issue is how we handle these absentee ballots [which are the subject of the Franken lawsuit]," he says. Mark Jeranek, who voted for Franken, cast an absentee ballot in Beltrami County, located in northwestern Minnesota, that was rejected because he didn't sign the envelope in which he placed his ballot. The Franken campaign sent him an affidavit that he is considering signing. "I don't want to be a cause for revolution, but at the same time I want my vote to count," the 39-year-old environmental consultant says. "It's kind of neat — at least for a senatorial race — that it really does come down to every individual vote."

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