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Franken, Coleman continue to challenge ballots

ST. PAUL - Reports from around the state today indicated Norm Coleman and Al Franken representatives increased their ballot challenges, the U.S. Senate recount's third day.

Recount
Al Franken's recount attorney, Washington, D.C.-based Marc Elias, holds a southeastern Minnesota ballot on which the voter picked Republican John McCain for president and Democrat Al Franken for U.S. Senate. Elias said a Coleman observer challenged the ballot in the Senate recount, apparently because he did not think a voter could opt for a GOP presidential candidate and a Democrat for Senate. [State Capitol Bureau]
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ST. PAUL - Reports from around the state today indicated Norm Coleman and Al Franken representatives increased their ballot challenges, the U.S. Senate recount's third day.

While it was not a universal trend, it appeared at mid-day to be common.

The more challenged ballots that pile up during the recount, the more votes that must be decided by the five-member state Canvassing Board beginning Dec. 16. By Thursday night, 734 ballots had been challenged with fewer than half of the ballots recounted.

The 734 number far outdistances the 215 votes that Republican Sen. Coleman led Democrat Franken when the initial returns were tallied.

Coleman and Franken observers are at every one of the 107 recount sites across the state.

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Franken's chief recount attorney said that information from his volunteers indicates Coleman's lead probably has shrunk to double digits.

As of Thursday night, the incumbent's lead could be figured as 129 votes using the secretary of state's unofficial figures. However, Franken attorney Marc Elias said that his double-digit margin is based on observers reporting what candidate would have received the votes if the campaigns had not challenged ballots.

Things looked good for Franken, Elias said. "There are more Democratic areas left to be counted."

Coleman's campaign was to brief reporters later in the day.

As piles of challenged ballots grew, it became obvious that the decision of who won the election will be made by the state Canvassing Board.

Either campaign can challenge ballots because of things like there was doubt about who the voter intended to pick. Those challenged ballots, which likely will be more than 1,000, will be examined by the board made up of Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and four judges beginning Dec. 16.

Even after the Canvassing Board is done, the election could end up being decided by the courts, or even by the U.S. Senate.

Not all counting sites reported a lot of challenged ballots.

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In the eastern Twin Cities Washington County, just 48 ballots were challenged by mid-day, after three days of counting. County elections officials plan to finish recounting their 130,000-plus ballots Saturday.

The top elections officials held out a little hope of wrapping things up tonight.

"If it's close and both parties agree we'll go later," Elections Supervisor Carol Peterson said. "But we don't want to be here any more than an hour longer."

Also reporting relatively light challenges was Renville County, in the southwest.

Franken's team challenged two votes and Coleman observers made no challenges Friday morning at the Olivia counting site.

Franken's total vote increased by a single vote after judges ruled the voter intended to cast the ballot for Franken using a check mark rather than filling in the oval.

"The machine couldn't see it,'' County Auditor Larry Jacobs said. "But it was obvious this particular person wanted to cast a vote for Franken and that's what we did in the recount.

Other than normal vote fluctuations seen during any recount, two major issues remain:

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-- The two campaigns are challenging hundreds of ballots, far more than the difference expected between them at the end of the recount.

-- Absentee ballots that local officials rejected, which also could be in the hundreds, should be considered, the Franken campaign says.

The state Canvassing Board is expected to meet Wednesday to decide the absentee issue and in December to count challenged ballots. Between the two issues, the five-member board easily will consider enough ballots to decide the winner.

Every one of the state's 2.9 million ballots is being counted by hand. Most counties appear to be progressing faster than expected, although some do not start their recounts until as late as Dec. 3.

Reporters from the Stillwater Courier and West Central Tribune contributed to this story.

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