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Scott Wente, Published December 17 2008

Board begins review of ballots

ST. PAUL – Reading voters’ minds is not “an exact science,” state election officials learned Tuesday as they examined the first of what could be more than 1,500 U.S. Senate ballots.

That was clear as the state Canvassing Board reviewed challenged ballots in a Minnesota Capitol complex meeting room filled with cameras, reporters and political activists.

The tedious exercise left the board’s five members trying to decipher voters’ intentions on ballots, often only by looking at a small mark or two.

“From my perspective, voter’s intent here, while far from overwhelming, I think is clear enough,” board member G. Barry Anderson, a state Supreme Court justice, said while reviewing a ballot. Such analyses were common in the review process.

The board must go through the stack of ballots the campaigns challenged – to determine each voter’s intent – because Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman leads Democrat Al Franken by fewer than 200 votes. Coleman’s lead grew slightly after the board reviewed 161 ballots Tuesday, because the board declared about 60 percent of the ballots to be Coleman votes.

A running tally means little, though, because several thousand disputed ballots remain uncounted.

Attorneys for each campaign said the early results benefited their candidate.

“We are not interested in the horse race,” Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said at the end of the day, saying even he did not track how the ballots fell during the review.

A statewide recount of 2.9 million ballots determined most voters’ intent, but more than enough disputed ballots remain to decide the race’s outcome. It is the board’s job to settle those disputed ballots.

The stack of ballots may grow before today’s meeting. The Coleman campaign announced after the Canvassing Board meeting that it planned to reinstate some challenges that it earlier had withdrawn. Coleman attorney Tony Trimble said that would be roughly 200 ballots on top of the campaign’s estimated 1,000 challenges.

Both campaigns said they would review their challenges – potentially adding some while subtracting others – after watching how the board ruled Tuesday.

Board members – Ritchie and four jurists – started with a pile of 441 challenges made by Franken’s campaign during the recent statewide recount. They picked up the first ballot at 12:23 p.m. – an Anoka County vote that went to Coleman – but got less than halfway through that initial stack after about five hours of work. They will return for full days today through Friday.

Ritchie said he still intends to complete the review by late Friday, but the race will not be settled then. Many observers expect the courts to have the final say.

As the board continues reviewing ballots, the Supreme Court will hear arguments this afternoon from the campaigns about how to handle another stack of controversial ballots – an estimated 1,500 improperly rejected absentee ballots. The board will not meet during that one-hour hearing.

The Coleman campaign wants the high court to order counties not to count those ballots, at least until a uniform statewide procedure is established about what a rejected ballot is. Franken’s campaign, which wants the ballots counted, says a uniform standard exists in state law.

Canvassing Board members had little difficulty determining the voter’s intent in many cases. However, they grappled with other ballots, such as ones in which only a small mark was placed in the oval for Franken or Coleman.

Canvassing Board member and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson admitted the board may not be “entirely consistent” in all of its ballot decisions during the process.

“A lot of this is how the ballot strikes us,” he said, adding later the board’s work was not “an exact science.”

Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or swente@forumcomm.com