Al Franken has widened his lead over Norm Coleman to 225 votes. (Photo: Getty Images)
Norm Coleman's term as a U.S. senator ended at noon Washington time on Saturday, and by evening his hopes of winning a second term had been dealt an expected but serious setback as state officials counted previously rejected absentee ballots in St. Paul.
DFLer Al Franken held an unofficial lead of 225 votes over Coleman, according to a newspaper tally of the officials' count of the absentee ballots. Franken had led unofficially by 49 votes going into the day and gained a net 176 votes from the new ballots.
With the recount complete, focus immediately shifted to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which continued to consider a request from the Coleman campaign to alter the process and add more absentee ballots to be reconsidered. But by early evening there was no word from the state's highest court as to when it would rule or hear arguments.
Officials from the Minnesota secretary of state's office, flanked by attorneys for Coleman and Franken, spent much of the day sorting through - but not yet counting - the 933 previously-rejected absentee ballots that local election officials had acknowledged were mistakenly not counted. When the counting finally began in the late afternoon, and then moved quickly, Franken gained a large majority of the votes that the campaign had for weeks argued should be counted.
The state Canvassing Board is scheduled to meet Monday - and possibly again Tuesday - to review the tally of the previously rejected ballots. It may announce the race's final result by Tuesday, the day a new Congress convenes in Washington.
The outcome Saturday was not a surprise, as the ballots counted came disproportionately from precincts where Franken did well on Election Day, according to a Star Tribune analysis. But a court challenge to the recount is almost certain to follow a certification from the Canvassing Board, as Coleman lawyers acknowledged last week.
Under state law, an election certificate formally naming a winner cannot be issued until all legal disputes are resolved.
The lawsuit, called an election contest, is expected to center on the issue of the excluded absentee ballots as well as disputes over ballots the Coleman campaign believes were double counted and a decision to use Election Day machine totals, rather than recount totals, in a Minneapolis precinct where more than 100 ballots went missing.
Drama at Day's Start
The day began with a moment of drama when Tony Trimble, a lead recount attorney for Coleman, formally asked that the counting not begin until the Supreme Court made its ruling. "This procedure should not continue until the Supreme Court has acted," Trimble said, reflecting Coleman's dimming hopes of winning the recount without the addition of more ballots.
For much last week, the Coleman campaign had tried to force the secretary of state's office and local election officials to add 654 absentee ballots to the total, saying they, too, needed to be reviewed. The ballots came disproportionately from precincts where Coleman fared well in the election.
As meetings were held last week across the state to review the absentee ballots, Coleman's lawyers were largely unsuccessful in trying to get local election officials themselves to add the 654 ballots to the official count.
In Hennepin County, as elsewhere across the state, local election officials told Coleman that the two campaigns would have to first agree to adding more votes before local officials would consider doing so. Throughout the week, however, Franken officials repeatedly rejected attempts by Coleman to add more votes.
On Saturday, Trimble said the campaign would drop its objection to starting the count - if the 654 ballots were included, along with several dozen ballots Franken wanted to add.
But after conferring with the Minnesota attorney general's office, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann said the counting would continue. The announcement brought about a brief clash between Gelbmann and Trimble when Gelbmann said he would not consider further comments from the campaigns. "I think the candidates have had an opportunity to address this process," Gelbmann said.
Said Trimble: "This is a public meeting. I'm going to have my say."
"Two minutes," Gelbmann replied.
"It may be two-and-a-half, sir, but I'm going to have my say," Trimble shot back.
"Two minutes," Gelbmann repeated.
Marc Elias, the lead recount attorney for Franken, said his campaign was ready to move forward with the counting. "We are, obviously, prepared to proceed," he said.
Focus on the Court
The Franken campaign, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and various county officials filed responses with the Supreme Court by Saturday morning, with Franken, Ritchie and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman all arguing forcefully against the Coleman petition. They said the process for identifying wrongly rejected absentee ballots had worked as intended and should be completed.
The Franken brief argued that the Coleman campaign had missed deadlines to request reconsideration of additional ballots, and added that all rejected absentee ballots have now been reviewed at least twice by local officials.
But it appeared that the rules for handling added ballots were understood and applied differently from one county to another. While officials in Hennepin, Ramsey and Rice counties said they had refused to consider additional ballots, officials in Anoka and Pipestone counties said they had done so, even without agreement from the campaigns.
Much of the day Saturday was spent conducting a preliminary sorting of the ballots. At one point, state officials painstakingly separated the secrecy envelopes from the ballots.
Gelbmann, in announcing the move to reporters and lawyers, said it was another step to preserve the secrecy of individual votes and to "preserve evidence for possible future litigation."