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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published November 29 2010

UPDATED: Few problems reported as small counties finish Minnesota governor recount

ST. PAUL - More than two dozen of Minnesota's 87 counties had finished their portion of 2.1 million ballots in the governor's race by mid-afternoon today.

The recount begin quietly and relatively few vote changes were evident.

"Overall, they are going amazingly well," said Ken Martin, Democrat Mark Dayton's recount chief.

Tables were set up in government buildings across the state today as the second major statewide recount in two years began. Most smaller counties were wrapping up their work today, but counties with more voters were expected to continue the state-funded hand recount to last several days.

State Republican Chairman Tony Sutton said he did not expect much change as less-populous counties reported their recount numbers.

"The smaller counties tend to be places where there are fewer issues," he said.

Statewide, Dayton held an 8,770-vote lead over Republican Tom Emmer heading into the recount, larger than any Minnesota recount has reversed.

While Martin sounded confident, Sutton warned that the work is not done. "They are basically trying to say this thing is all over; we don't know yet."

Dayton had nearly 2,000 people at recounting sites; Emmer had 600. About 100 volunteers and staff members manned the Dayton state headquarters, while a dozen were in the Republican Party offices.

One exception to what both sides said was a smooth first day was in Renville County, where Martin said Emmer's representatives challenged election officials' decisions on 107 ballots, the biggest batch of challenged ballots in the state.

Officials of both candidates' recount teams had no explanation for the large number of Renville challenges.

Election judges are going through ballots, placing them in piles for Emmer, Dayton and other candidates. The two campaigns may challenge judges' decisions about who the voter intended to pick, in which case the State Canvassing Board may decide voters' intent when it meets next month.

Most of the early challenges were called frivolous by election officials.

In many places, the same people who conducted the 2008 U.S. Senate recount between Norm Coleman and Al Franken were in place today.

In Hubbard County, in the northwest, workers greeted each other and auditor's staff as old friends.

Many assumed the seats in Park Rapids they had taken in 2008, with one laughing to photographers that, “you could just use one of the old pictures.”

The morning went smooth and quiet in Hubbard County with Emmer gaining four votes and Dayton two, typical of the small changes many counties reported.

In nearby Beltrami County, Dayton gained two votes and Emmer one in the recount, which ended by 2 p.m.

In west-central Minnesota's Willmar, no problems were reported in the Kandiyohi County recount, which was expected to end later today.

Besides official representatives for Dayton and Emmer that are keeping a close eye on how the ballots are sorted and counted, at least a dozen other people watched the Kandiyohi procedure. Most of those individuals are Dayton supporters.

Like in other counties, Douglas County officials in Alexandria made sure the ballots were secure.

When workers took a break from the recount from noon to 1 p.m., one election official and a deputy sheriff deputy stayed in the room.

The hand count in Washington County, in the western Twin Cities, is expected to wrap up by Wednesday.

Kevin Corbid, director of property records and taxpayer services, said a post-election day audit of four Washington County precincts resulted in only two changes to the county's vote totals and recounts seldom produce results, "but it does happen."

New, tougher ballot-challenge rules were tested in Washington County, when an Emmer recount observer challenged that a blank ballot be counted for the Republican. The challenge was deemed frivolous by Carol Peterson, the county's elections administrator.

It should take about four work days to recount the 86,000 ballots cast in St. Louis County, County Auditor Don Dicklich said.

Ballots were wheeled out of locked storage and escorted by county officials and members of each party’s election teams, then recounted at tables in the county board meeting room on the second floor of the Duluth courthouse.

By late morning in Goodhue County, recount observers representing Dayton and Emmer, had not challenged any ballots. That compares to a total of 32 challenged ballots in the 2008 Senate race.

Goodhue County Finance Director and recount deputy Carolyn Holmsten said election officials were on track to finish the counting by 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. today.

“It’s been going fine,” she said. “People have been very good and respectful from both campaigns.”

Early reports indicated that the Dayton recount effort produced more volunteers at county offices than Emmer. Dayton's people said more than 2,500 would be on the ground today.

Dayton's team also produced Tweets every few minutes to update followers on what was happening around the state.

Counties have until Dec. 7 to finish their work. The State Canvassing Board is to begin a round of meetings the next day to examine ballots where questions remain. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has a goal of the board determining the winner by Dec. 14, but the loser could take the election to court in a lengthy process.

A new governor is to be sworn in on Jan. 3.

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Forum Communications Co. newspapers from across Minnesota contributed to this story. Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.