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Don Davis, Published June 02 2009

Justices examine rural-urban differences in Senate election

ST. PAUL – Five Minnesota Supreme Court justices must decide whether thousands of greater Minnesota voters’ absentee ballots were unfairly rejected in the 2008 U.S. Senate race.

Republican Norm Coleman’s attorneys Monday told the justices that laws were not evenly applied, and actions in larger counties such as St. Louis, Ramsey and Hennepin tilted last Nov. 4’s U.S. Senate election in favor of Democrat Al Franken.

Those Democratic-heavy counties “are the counties that relaxed the standards and let the votes in,” Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg said after a Monday high court hearing. “Good ole conservative Republican counties followed the rules.”

Coleman, who appealed a three-judge panel’s decision, said he hopes the Supreme Court sends the case back to the lower court with instructions to count more absentee ballots that had been rejected for a variety of reasons. He hopes that will give him the votes to beat challenger Franken.

“It has been about the opportunity to ensure that ... 4,000 Minnesotans whose votes were not counted” are added to the total, Coleman said after a fast-paced, 70-minute hearing. “I don’t know what is in those ballots, but every one of those would have been counted had they lived in a different area.”

“There is a geographical difference,” added Friedberg. “Depending on where you sleep, that depends whether you vote gets counted. That’s imminently correctable.”

The attorney said he is not accusing anyone of breaking the law, but since larger counties counted more absentee ballots – and they cannot be uncounted – then smaller counties should do the same.

Franken attorney Marc Elias disputed the Coleman greater Minnesota disenfranchise argument, saying that it is only natural that election officials in different counties handle things differently.

For instance, he told the justices, it may be easier to figure out if a voter is registered in rural Pine County than it is in the state’s largest city, Minneapolis. In Pine County, he said, there may only be one street called “Main.” But in Minneapolis, there could be a Main Street, a Main Boulevard and other roads with the name “main,” making election workers work harder to verify registration.

Friedberg argued that just six or seven of the state’s 87 counties checked whether people who witnessed absentee voters casting ballots were registered, as required by state law.

Friedberg said it is not fair that St. Louis County rejected no absentee ballots for that reason, while the Twin Cities suburb of Plymouth rejected 67.

Elias said that whether to count each ballot must be decided on its own: “Every ballot has a story.”

Justice Christopher Dietzen said Friedberg made claims, but produced “no concrete evidence to back it up.”

Justice Alan Page, the longest-serving high court member, wondered aloud: “Do we have authority to do anything here?”

The court can decide who collected the most votes, Elias responded, but the U.S. Senate ultimately decides who is seated.

After 2.9 million Minnesotans went to the polls last Nov. 4, after a statewide recount and after a lengthy district court trial, Franken leads Coleman by 312 votes.

The issue is of national interest because Democrats and their independent allies hold 59 votes in the Senate. If they get one more, they can avoid Republican filibusters and other parliamentary maneuvers that can delay or kill Democratic initiatives, including those by President Barack Obama.


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