- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2009

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Supreme Court on Monday rejected Republican Norm Coleman’s request to count an additional 654 rejected absentee ballots in the state’s U.S. Senate race, taking away his last option for overtaking Democrat Al Franken in the recount.

The court’s ruling paves the way for the state Canvassing Board to certify results showing Franken won the race. But Coleman’s attorneys have said they are likely to sue if he loses the recount, meaning it could be weeks more before the outcome is final.

Coleman had argued the ballots were improperly rejected. Franken’s campaign charged that Coleman was focusing only on ballots that would allow him to overcome a current vote deficit.

The former “Saturday Night Live” personality leads Coleman by 225 votes after the state finished counting more than 2.9 million ballots cast in the election, including 900 absentee ballots that weren’t counted on Nov. 4 because of poll worker error.

In a five-page ruling, the high court said Coleman’s motion was among issues better handled in a post-recount lawsuit. They cited an earlier order requiring candidates and local election officials to agree on which unopened absentee ballots should be included in the recount.

Justice Alan Page said the ballots Coleman identified didn’t have that consensus.

“Because the parties and the respective counties have not agreed as to any of these ballots, the merits of this dispute (and any other disputes with respect to absentee ballots) are the proper subjects of an election contest,” Page wrote.

The ruling was another hard blow to Coleman, who entered the recount up by 215 votes.

The Canvassing Board — made up of four judges and the secretary of state — was to meet Monday afternoon to go over the final results and sign off on them.

Their action triggers a seven-day waiting period before an election certificate is signed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. If any lawsuits are filed during that waiting period, certification is withheld until court matters are resolved.

Lawyers for both campaigns have laid the groundwork for lawsuits through public comments and legal maneuvering. In recent weeks, as Franken clung to a small lead, Coleman’s lawyers said they could sue over possible mishandling of ballots on election night and during the recount.

A court case would open doors closed to the campaigns during the administrative recount. They would be able to access voter rolls, inspect machines and get testimony from election workers.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who until recently was the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Sunday the race was settled and that Franken had won the election.

“While there are still possible legal issues that will run their course, there is no longer any doubt who will be the next Senator from Minnesota,” Schumer said. “With the Senate set to begin meeting on Tuesday to address the important issues facing the nation, it is crucial that Minnesota’s seat not remain empty, and I hope this process will resolve itself as soon as possible.”

Sen. John Cornyn, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called Schumer’s comments premature and troubling, since Schumer is the new chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over contested elections.

“Senator Schumer will likely play a key role in determining who ultimately assumes this Senate seat,” Cornyn said. “Pre-judging the outcome while litigation is still pending calls into question his ability to impartially preside over this matter when it comes before the Committee, as it most certainly will.”

Coleman’s term as senator officially expired Saturday.

Senate Republican leaders have said the chamber shouldn’t seat Franken until all legal matters are settled, even if that drags on for months.

Franken campaign spokesman Andy Barr said in an e-mail Sunday: “In terms of future planning, we’re taking it one step at a time. The next step is the canvass board’s meeting tomorrow, where we have every expectation they will declare that Al won the election.”

Associated Press writer Amy Forliti contributed to this report.

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