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Brian Bakst, Published December 23 2008

Minnesota Senate winner won't be known in 2008

ST. PAUL (AP) – Minnesota voters won’t know who won the state’s U.S. Senate race this year, and it’s looking more likely that the new Congress will be sworn in before the race ends.

The state Canvassing Board has already scheduled a Jan. 5 meeting and its chairman said the panel’s work could spill into Jan. 6 – the day the next Congress convenes.

Democrat Al Franken leads Republican Sen. Norm Coleman with an increasingly small number of ballots yet to consider. Franken finished Tuesday up 47 votes, according to a preliminary report by the secretary of state’s office. The board made one correction costing Franken a vote.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said there is no way the board will certify a winner this year. Counties have until Dec. 31 – Ritchie’s office and the campaigns could agree to push that out a few days – to submit new vote totals to the board that includes the counting of absentee ballots under a court order.

“We are not in any way guided by any Washington consideration, timeline,” said Ritchie, a Democrat. “These folks have people’s lives in their hands.”

Coleman’s campaign disputed the allocation of some challenged ballots and called some of the board’s rulings inconsistent. The campaign asked the board to reconsider how it decided 16 challenged ballots, but none were switched.

“In looking back at these again, it was all immediately clear to me why I had voted the way I had. There was no uncertainty,” said Eric Magnuson, the Supreme Court chief justice and a board member. “I saw nothing in any of those that gave me pause to change my vote. I suspect if you went and gave me another 100 of them there wouldn’t be that many I got wrong.”

The campaign also said there are at least 20 withdrawn challenges – probably more according to his lawyers – that were misallocated by Ritchie’s staff. They said some were Coleman votes given to Franken, which would represent a two vote swing once corrected.

But Franken’s campaign has also brought some potential errors to the board’s attention, which it says amounts to 43 potential votes in the Democrat’s favor.

The board will meet Dec. 30 to consider the allocation report.

What’s more, the Coleman campaign was due to go before the state Supreme Court later Tuesday to argue for the disqualification of ballots it claims were double counted.

Regardless of the outcome of that case, the vote totals could shift again when local elections officials open as many as 1,600 absentee ballots that were incorrectly rejected on Election Day. Franken’s campaign fought for their inclusion, but it is anyone’s guess how those votes will break.

The race was thrown into overtime because Coleman led Franken by a mere 215 votes after the Nov. 4 count of about 2.9 million ballots. That was well within the automatic recount law triggered when races are within one half of one percentage point.