- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Live from Minnesota, it’s … a hotly contested Senate race and recount fight. Political tensions are running high in the Land of 10,000 Lakes as election officials prepare to recount 2.9 million ballots in the state’s closest U.S. Senate race in history.

An improbable 204 votes separate Sen. Norm Coleman, the Republican incumbent, who is leading his opponent, former “Saturday Night Live” actor-comic Al Franken of the Democratic Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party. That number is down from the 221 figure last week, but even that is expected to change as ballots are recounted statewide.

The nail-biter and unresolved finale puts a wild coda on an election that was not only the nation’s most costly Senate battle, but also one of its most mean-spirited. Many said the vicious campaigning waged on both sides was out of context for a state known for its Midwest sensibility and its bipartisan, ticket-splitting harmony.

“The Coleman and Franken campaigns have done permanent damage to Minnesota’s national reputation for niceness,” said political scientist Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Politics and Governance, of the battling that continues post-election.

“There is a kind of a reputation here for Minnesota nice. Not so much anymore.”

Mr. Coleman, 59, a one-term senator and popular former St. Paul mayor, claimed victory on election night but has been forced to pull back as an initial vote deficit for Mr. Franken, 57, a Minnesota native who is an author and talk-radio host, dropped last week from 700 votes to just more than 200 after some rechecking in certain precincts and concerns over uncounted absentee ballots.

“The most important thing is that every vote is counted,” said Franken spokeswoman Colleen Murray on the recount. “We know it’s going to be a little while longer, but eventually, the voice of the people is going to be heard.”

Even with the late addition in the race of Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley, a lawyer and friend of former Gov. Jesse Ventura’s who briefly filled the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s Senate seat, pre-election polls predicted a tossup between Mr. Franken and Mr. Coleman right up to Election Day. The razor-slim voter margin surprised many in the state by making those tossup poll numbers literal.

State law requires an automatic recount in an election that is decided by one-half of one percentage point or less. Election auditors on Nov. 19, after an unofficial tally is certified, will begin hand-recount proceedings, also required by law, in each of the state’s 87 counties and major cities. Results are expected by mid-December - provided there are no legal challenges.

Challenges, however, seem possible. Mr. Coleman already has sued Mr. Franken over election ads he claims were defamatory.

On Monday, the pressure was on for Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a member of the DFL, to maintain fairness in the recount amid fears of bias. Mr. Coleman’s campaign manager went on the offensive last week, according to local media accounts, over newly counted votes going mostly in Mr. Franken’s favor. He called them “statistically dubious and improbable.”

The Coleman campaign unsuccessfully attempted to block 32 absentee ballots from being counted in Hennepin County, arguing that they had not been kept in sealed boxes. A judge in Ramsey County ruled on Saturday that he was denying the campaign’s request not to count the ballots because of lack of jurisdiction.

On Monday, Mr. Franken’s campaign released 2006 election data from Hennepin County in the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races, eventually won by Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The county, a Democratic stronghold, showed thousands of votes changed from post-Election Day tallies and final canvass tallies. Mrs. Klobuchar received 3,225 extra votes, and Mr. Pawlenty got 2,798 extra votes in Hennepin by the time the final vote count was completed, numbers the Franken camp offered to bolster the likelihood that current election figures could change significantly.

The last time the state held a recount for a statewide federal office was in 1962. Mr. Jacobs said that even as both sides ramp up the rhetoric over recount fairness, it will be conducted with strict adherence to state law, which is specific.

“Minnesota is one of the very best in the country in doing elections,” he said.

“While the process of the recount is being treated by the campaigns as an extension of the battle leading up to Election Day, the actual process of a recount and possibly a contested election is administrative and legal. In Minnesota, the law is clear … and there is every reason to expect a clean, fair and transparent process.”

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