- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. | The campaigns of Republican incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken wrangled Monday over hundreds of unopened absentee ballots that could still tip Minnesota’s Senate race.

Lawyers ended a testy public negotiation session convened by the Secretary of State’s Office without agreement on which ballots to open or how many should be under consideration.

That leaves the heavy lifting to a series of regional meetings that begin Tuesday. The ballots that make the cut at those meetings will be opened in St. Paul by Monday.

Those ballots are important because Mr. Franken leads Mr. Coleman by just 47 votes after the manual review of more than 2.9 million ballots.

The absentee ballots in question were incorrectly rejected by poll judges on or before Election Day, mostly because of clerical errors outside the four legal reasons for rejection.

The state board overseeing the recount ordered that the ballots be counted, and the state Supreme Court agreed - although justices added a few wrinkles. A majority ruled that either campaign can keep any ballot out of the mix with a written objection, leaving spurned voters the option of going to court to reinstate their ballot.

Local officials identified some 1,350 rejected ballots they now say should count, but Mr. Coleman’s campaign suggested there are an additional 650 that should be added.

A large share of the ballots already identified come from counties where Mr. Franken ran up big margins over Mr. Coleman. Minneapolis alone accounts for almost 10 percent of the ballots.

Mr. Coleman’s proposed additions skew heavily toward suburban and rural counties where he did better in the election.

By this weekend, the Secretary of State’s Office is supposed to open the pile of ballots and add the votes to the race tally. It’s the last major obstacle before the five-member canvassing board declares a winner.

Monday’s negotiations were an attempt to speed the absentee-counting process, which the court said must end by Jan. 4.

In seeking to reconsider more ballots than previously identified, Mr. Coleman campaign attorney Tony Trimble stressed the stakes.

“Time is precious, but accuracy is much more precious,” he said.

Franken attorney Kevin Hamilton accused the Coleman team of trying to manipulate the process for political advantage.

“If we’re going to start cherry-picking off those lists, the whole thing breaks down,” Mr. Hamilton said.

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann, who ran the negotiations, said he was reluctant to ask county officials to re-examine absentee ballots they had sorted through twice already.

“The clock is ticking away,” he said at one point.

At the regional meetings, local election officials will display the sealed envelopes of the list of potentially erroneous rejections.

If both campaigns agree the ballot inside should count, it is shipped to St. Paul. A disagreement leaves it out pending possible court action. The campaign lawyers were warned they could face sanctions for baseless attempts to exclude legal votes.

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