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Recount: Franken gains 40, Coleman 12 in St. Louis County

The much-anticipated statewide recount in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race between Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman began just after 9 a.m. Wednesday in St. Louis County.

The much-anticipated statewide recount in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race between Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman began just after 9 a.m. Wednesday in St. Louis County.

Most Minnesota counties reported little change from their election-night tallies. But in the St. Louis County precincts counted Wednesday, Franken gained 28 votes over those counted earlier. Officials said Franken gained 40 votes, while Coleman gained 12.

The 28-vote Franken gain, expected by the Coleman campaign, was due mostly to an older type of voting machine used on the Iron Range that does not always read faint lines.

The St. Louis County vote swing appeared to be the biggest change on the first day of the recount.

Locked away for days in the attic of the St. Louis County Courthouse, the first of 120,000 ballots cast Nov. 4 were brought into the county boardroom Wednesday. The hand recount of votes from the county's 184 precincts is expected to take at least five days.

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"We're going to work through Saturday and, if all goes well and there are no legal challenges that stop the counting, we should be done by Monday,'' County Auditor Don Dicklich said.

Dicklich noted that it took more than three days to hand-count 90,000 ballots cast in the 2006 race between Melanie Ford and Alan Mitchell for county attorney.

Though Coleman won the initial tally after the election by just over 200 votes statewide, that count is irrelevant. The official total will come from the recount.

Across Minnesota, more than 2.9 million ballots will be counted by hand at more than 100 locations.

By 5 p.m. Wednesday, when the counting stopped, 78 of the county's smallest precincts had been counted, representing about 25,000 votes, said Paul Tynjala, director of elections for St. Louis County. That includes 64 precincts where ballots are counted by hand on election night.

The recount showed some changes in vote totals in several precincts, but most of the changes were due to Franken and Coleman observers challenging ballots, not because of voting machine or hand-counted mistakes.

By late afternoon, the Coleman campaign had challenged 28 votes while Franken observers had challenged 18. Those ballots' fate will be determined by the State Canvassing Board at a later date.

OLDER MACHINES MISSED VOTES

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The one place where a pattern of change developed was in the county's 18 precincts -- in Babbitt, Ely and Eveleth -- where older voting machines count ballots with split arrows voters must connect with a heavy line.

Several votes in each of those precincts appeared not to have been counted because voters didn't sufficiently connect the arrow, Tynjala said.

"The machines work very well, but only if the voter colors in the arrow completely,'' Tynjala said. "If not, it's not counted as a vote."

For example, in Eveleth's six precincts, Coleman's vote total increased by 5 while Franken's rose by 32. There was so little doubt about the previously uncounted ballots, however, that only 12 of those 37 votes were challenged by either Franken or Coleman representatives.

"Most are pretty obvious to a human eye," though not always to the optical scanner, Tynjala said, noting he hopes that those 1990s-vintage machines will be replaced with scanners that read ballots with oval blanks instead of arrows.

Bill Cortes of Duluth, an observer for the Franken campaign, said votes were being challenged because some voters mistakenly cast ballots for multiple candidates in the same race. While those mismarked ballots probably would have been noticed by electronic scanners, they might have been missed in polling places where ballots are counted by hand.

Because so many ballots from each Minnesota county probably will be challenged by the Coleman and Franken campaigns -- because they were mismarked or the voter's intentions are unclear -- the final tally for the race, and the ultimate winner, might not be determined by the state Canvassing Board for several weeks, Dicklich said.

The Canvassing Board will try to decipher each challenged ballot. And even the board's decision can be challenged in court.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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