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Franken campaign seeks ballots' inclusion

The Al Franken campaign wants the state Canvassing Board to include wrongly rejected absentee ballots into the U.S. Senate tally it is set to certify Tuesday, said Marc Elias, an attorney for the Democratic candidate. staff photo by Scott Wente

ST. PAUL - Al Franken's campaign warns a Minnesota board may violate state law and the Constitution if it ignores hundreds of absentee ballots claimed improperly rejected.

Norm Coleman's campaign retorts that Franken's efforts are designed to delay a statewide recount.

Using stories of four rural Minnesota voters whose absentee ballots it said were wrongly rejected, the Democrat's campaign on Monday asked the state Canvassing Board to include those ballots and "hundreds" others like them in the official tally.

The campaign said it learned of those four voters' problems after their counties -- Pennington, Goodhue and Kandiyohi - responded to Franken's request for a list of the names of voters whose absentee ballots were rejected by local elections officials. The campaign then contacted the voters.

Franken spokesman Andy Barr said the campaign has received information from 12 to 15 counties and its research shows the number of absentee ballots - a group of ballots the campaign believes favors Franken - that were improperly rejected is "in the hundreds."

Secretary of state officials said on Monday, as they prepared for today's state Canvassing Board meeting that will set the recount into motion, that Franken trails Republican Sen. Norm Coleman by 215 votes out of 2.9 million cast. The unofficial vote tally was updated with nine more votes for Coleman after some legally required random audits were conducted.

The Franken campaign will take its request to the board when it meets this afternoon to certify counties' election totals and likely order a hand recount of the U.S. Senate ballots in one of the country's closest and most-watched elections.

Coleman recount attorney Fritz Knaak said it is not the Canvassing Board's duty to determine whether absentee ballots were improperly rejected. That issue should be decided in court. He cited a Monday opinion of Democratic Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson's office that said the administrative recount "is not to determine if absentee ballots were properly accepted."

Knaak said the Franken plan was "a blatant admission that they do not believe they have the votes to overturn the re-election of Norm Coleman."

Franken attorney Marc Elias said the campaign is not asking the board to delay or halt the recount, only that it ensure all legitimate ballots are included in the tally that will trigger the recount.

"For those results to be correct, it goes without saying that all the lawful ballots must have been counted," Elias said.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said he does not think the Franken request will delay the planned Wednesday recount start. While many counties and cities plan to begin recounts Wednesday, some do not expect to start until next week.

The secretary, Minnesota's top elections official and Canvassing Board chairman, said he told Franken's campaign to limit discussion of the issue to 10 minutes.

The four voters identified in a legal brief all had their absentee ballots wrongly rejected, the Franken campaign said. They are:

-- Jessup Schiks of Kandiyohi County, whose signature on his ballot did not match the signature on file with the county. He signed an affidavit saying the absentee ballot is his.

-- Bruce Behrens of Goodhue County, who local election officials believed did not have a registered voter as his witness. Behrens' witness, his girlfriend, is registered to vote in Minnesota, the campaign said.

-- James Langland of Pennington County, who voted absentee at the county but whose ballot was rejected because a county employee did not sign a necessary form.

-- Ordell Adkins of Thief River Falls, whose ballot was rejected because Pennington County did not believe she was a registered voter. She was, Franken's campaign said.

Four judges and Ritchie, a Democrat, make up the board and today should order the recount - required by state law because of the narrow margin -- that in many counties begins Wednesday.

Ritchie's goal is for all counties to be done recounting ballots by Dec. 5 and the Canvassing Board would make its final decision by Dec. 19. However, his timetable is not binding and it does not figure in any delays caused by court rulings or if one of the campaigns takes the entire election to court after the December Canvassing Board decision.

When the board meets next month, it will go through each ballot that either campaign challenged during local recounts. Ritchie said thousands of ballots could be challenged in an election this size. That is far more than enough to swing the election either way.

In other developments:

  • A Ramsey Country District Court judge set Wednesday, after the recount begins, as the time to hear a case in which the Franken campaign's request for the names of voters whose absentee ballots were rejected due to a variety of problems.
  • Franken heads to Washington this week to raise money as well as talk to Democratic Senate leaders, but will not take part in training for new senators. Still, the trip caught the attention of Minnesota Republicans. State GOP Chairman Ron Carey said it was presumptuous of Franken to travel to Capitol Hill. He said Franken should tell top Senate Democrats not to meddle in the recount.
  • Knaak, Coleman's lead recount attorney, said the campaign has at least one lawyer ready to staff each recount location, but some areas will get more attention. That includes St. Louis County, where post-election vote total changes favoring Franken left Republicans skeptical. Knaak said it is "quite possible" the campaign will put more attorneys in St. Louis County than in other counties.
  • A group of former lawmakers and judges asked that certain conditions be met to ensure a transparent recount, including making sure there is ample space for the public, media and other observers, and that recount officials use tables or desks low enough so each ballot is visible to observers.
  • The conservative Minnesota Majority requested the Department of Justice investigate what is described as "apparent voter registration irregularities in Minnesota." The group opposes Minnesota's process of same-day voter registration, and also wants lawmakers to require voters provide photo ID to cast a ballot and to make other election-law changes.

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