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Ballot confusion as recount continues

Goodhue County Auditor-Treasurer Carolyn Holmsten discusses a disputed ballot Monday at the Goodhue County Government Center with Jeff Hasser, lead representative for the Al Franken campaign. staff photo by Mike Longaecker

ST. PAUL - The U.S. Senate recount got off to a rough start Monday in one northwestern Minnesota county, which reported it had found dozens of previously uncounted ballots and temporarily lost track of a handful more.

One of 10 sites statewide to start recounting votes Monday, Becker County officials said that they earlier misplaced 61 valid ballots, which are expected to be counted for the first time today as part of the recount.

Plus, the county initially came up four votes shy in the recount of one polling location, compared to the number of voters recorded having cast a ballot. Those ballots were later found.

"That's that human element in there," Becker County Auditor-Treasurer Ryan Tangen said of the misplaced ballots. "It was an oversight."

Becker County's ballot glitches stood out on the recount's fifth day, which saw Sen. Norm Coleman's 215-vote pre-recount lead at 172 votes with 74 percent of the ballots recounted. That was up five votes from the weekend numbers.

Becker County's situation was the type of case fueling the Al Franken campaign's request Monday that counties hunt for any missing ballots - the Democratic candidate's latest avenue in raising concerns that not all votes cast in the U.S. Senate race are being counted. It also wants improperly rejected absentee ballots included.

As the Franken campaign searches for all possible votes, it said Monday it had reports of cases in which a county's recounted ballot total was less than the number of voters who cast ballots. It asked Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to order county officials to make sure they have no missing ballots.

All 2.9 million ballots cast are to be recounted by Dec. 5. Todd and Sherburne counties begin their recount today.

The secretary of state's unofficial raw tally of only the recounted precincts showed Coleman ahead by 18,172 votes. The final difference is expected to be within hundreds or less.

The number of ballots challenged by either campaign continued to grow Monday. The Franken campaign has challenged 1,401 Coleman ballots. Coleman's team has challenged 1,400 Franken votes.

Some local officials completed their recount Monday, including Goodhue County. Thirty-two ballots were challenged in that southeastern Minnesota county's one-day recount, including one containing a fingerprint smudge and others in which voters had circled or checked off their choice instead of filling the oval.

Goodhue County recount deputy Carolyn Holmsten battled all day with Franken and Coleman representatives over disputed ballots, at one point telling Franken team members one of their challenges was "pretty frivolous."

While each campaign has accused the other of making petty challenges, the number of disputed ballots likely will decrease before the piles are forwarded to the state Canvassing Board, which will settle challenged ballots next month.

Coleman recount attorney Fritz Knaak said he expects the campaigns will get together and mutually agree to dismiss some of their challenges. That has happened in previous election recounts, he said.

Marc Elias, Franken's lead recount lawyer, said it is not the campaign's interest to forward to the state board ballots that it challenged without merit. But Elias would not say whether the two campaigns would work out an agreement to dispense some disputed ballots.

For two campaigns that have squabbled over minor recount details, little was made Monday of the woman who last week volunteered as a Franken observer in Otter Tail County before serving as a nonpartisan election official at Wilkin County's recount.

Coleman spokesman Mark Drake, who had raised concerns about the episode, said the campaign has heard of no other such instances. Knaak said the campaign does not expect to look into the issue further.

Franken spokesman Andy Barr said the campaign was not aware one of its observers would go on to count ballots in another county.

"Wilkin County obviously has its own guidelines on who they select to perform official duties in Wilkin County," Barr said, "and that's up to them."

Wilkin County Auditor Wayne Bezenek said had he known Maggie Vertin had been an observer for Al Franken during the Otter Tail County recount she would not have been an election judge at the recount held in Breckenridge, Minn.

That said, Bezenek described Vertin as having done "an honorable job" of helping with the recount in Wilkin County.

"She was at the busiest table," said Bezenek.

Bezenek said it was his understanding Vertin worked as an election judge in Breckenridge during the general election and that she had completed all the necessary training to be an election judge.

John Aiken, communications director for the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office, said late Monday that they had not heard from either campaign regarding the incident in Breckenridge over the weekend.

Aiken said neither of the campaigns has been shy about raising concerns they may have and he said when issues arise state officials have consistently worked to address them.

If a complaint is made regarding the recount in Wilkin County,

Aiken said the secretary of state's office will check with local election officials to determine what happened.

He said both campaigns would also be contacted to see if the issue might be resolved by mutual agreement.

Tangen said Becker County's ballot confusion was the result of lack of oversight. He said that on the busy election night, the 61 ballots - absentee ballots and some from precincts with mail-in balloting - were left in his office rather than being transported to an elections center elsewhere in the courthouse.

They were found the Friday following the election, at which point Tangen said his office contacted its county attorney, the secretary of state's office and the attorney general for input on how to proceed.

Tangen said he was told the ballots should be included with their precincts in the recount.

Reporters from The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Detroit Lakes Tribune and the Red Wing Republican Eagle contributed to this story.