Scott Wente, Published January 03 2009
Absentee ballot dispute clouds recount conclusionST. PAUL – Only a final stack of ballots stands in the way of declaring a winner in Minnesota’s U.S. Senate recount.
But like much of the prolonged recount between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken, it may not be that simple.
The Minnesota Secretary of State’s office today will start counting 953 absentee ballots local election officials and the two campaigns agreed were mistakenly rejected and should be tallied.
That was thought to be the final step before the state Canvassing Board gathers beginning Monday to settle any challenges to the absentee vote count and to certify a recount total.
That could change, however, after the Minnesota Supreme Court on Friday left open the possibility that it will take a look at how absentee ballots were considered. The court asked for more information before deciding on a request by Coleman’s campaign to reconsider absentee ballots and include more in the count.
The campaign claims counties applied different standards in determining which ballots were wrongly rejected and wants at least 650 more considered.
Improperly rejected absentee ballots are important because Franken leads Coleman by just 49 votes of the more than 3 million cast.
Acting on a Supreme Court order, county election officials identified nearly 1,350 absentee ballots they believed had been improperly rejected and thereby not counted on or before Election Day. The Supreme Court gave the campaigns the authority to exclude ballots they did not agree were wrongly rejected. They exercised that right, and only 953 were sent on to be opened and counted today.
The campaigns can challenge how the election official calls those votes. Any ballots challenged during the count will be sent to the state Canvassing Board to settle.
As the recount continues, Coleman’s Senate term officially ends at 11 a.m. today. The new Congress convenes Tuesday, when the state Canvassing Board could declare a recount winner.
The Canvassing Board’s certification of the recount result triggers a seven-day window for the filing of an election contest.
Coleman recount attorney Fritz Knaak said Friday that without Supreme Court-imposed changes to the absentee ballot process, “I would be very surprised if we weren’t the ones bringing the action.”
Under state law, if an election contest is filed, the winning U.S. Senate candidate does not receive an election certificate signed by the governor and secretary of state until after the lawsuit plays out. That could take weeks or months.
The Supreme Court said Friday afternoon it wanted documents by 9 a.m. today from several counties, including St. Louis and Pipestone, about the absentee ballot review process. It said oral arguments on Coleman’s request were possible, but nothing was scheduled.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said the Supreme Court’s request for information about how absentee ballots were reviewed does not affect his office’s plans to count those ballots this morning. Ritchie said he is complying with the court’s previous order that all improperly rejected absentee ballots be counted by Sunday night.
Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or firstname.lastname@example.org