Franken Leads, Court Battle Is On In Minnesota Senate Race

As of Tuesday, December 23, lawyers representing the two major candidates in the Minnesota Senate race were before the state Supreme Court arguing about the status of duplicate ballots. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the closest U.S. Senate race in the nation now has Democratic challenger Al Franken leading Republican Sen. Norm Coleman by 46 votes out of approximately 2.92 million cast. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie told MSNBC that about 1000 to 2000 ballots remain to be tallied.

Counted and now in a recount, the Franken-Coleman bout has now taken longer than Florida did to count its presidential ballots in 2000, hanging chads and all.

Coleman clung to a lead of less than 1,000 votes throughout the initial count and much of the recount. On Friday (December 18), Franken moved ahead for the first time and by a microscopic margin.

“I wouldn’t describe anything as fraudulent — nothing at all,” Minnesota Republican Party Communications Director Gina Countryman told me, “Our concern is making sure everything is counted, fairly and once.”

Countryman was referring to the duplicate ballots that are now the subject of argument in court. She explained there are original ballots (with which the voter actually votes) and duplicates (which show a vote was cast). The GOP spokeswoman pointed out that in an estimated 25 precincts, “they don’t have the same number of duplicates as ballots.”

Both Countryman and Coleman campaign spokesman Mark Drake pointed out to me that it was solely on the basis of the duplicate ballots that Franken moved ahead of Coleman on December 18. Much like the hanging chads in Florida in 2000, the duplicate ballots are at the heart of the Franken-Coleman dueling before the state Supreme Court. According to Minnesota Public Radio, “Coleman’s campaign wants the court to stop the canvassing board from counting duplicate ballots and also wants election officials to go back and see if any ballots were counted twice.” In addition, MPR reports, “Ritchie, Attorney General Lori Swanson, the Franken and Coleman campaign local elections officials [have presented] a motion to the Minnesota Supreme Court asking them to approve a revised plan regarding wrongly rejected absentee ballots.”

With the courts taking a holiday break, a decision is expected on both these motions sometime next week. Historically, courts move swiftly on election issues.

The next critical date in the timeline is December 30, when the Canvassing Board deals with recounted votes, challenges to ballots, and the final tallies. (The five-person board consists of Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and Justice Barry Anderson of the Supreme Court, both appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty; Ramsey County Judiciary Court Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin, a Democrat, and Judge Edward Cleary appointed by former Reform Party Gov. Jesse Ventura, and Secretary of State Ritchie, Democrat.)

On December 31, the state Canvassing Board is expected to complete its count. This is also the same date that the Supreme Court has set as the deadline for local officials to submit wrongly-rejected absentee ballot numbers to the Secretary of State’s office. Obviously sensing that it may not have its work completed on the 31st, the Canvassing Board asked for an extension until January 2nd to complete its counting.

On January 4, the office of Secretary of State Ritchie has to open and count the absentee ballots which are believed to have been wrongly rejected and determine which are legitimate votes. The next day, the Canvassing Board will accept results from absentee ballots and deal with the challenges to these absentee ballots.

If there are disputes remaining over absentee ballots, or regarding the number of ballots and duplicates by January 6th, and lawyers for either candidate file contests, then there will most likely be no certification of a winner.

January 6 is a red-letter date. That is when the new Congress is sworn in and Coleman’s current six year term expires. If that is the case, then Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty could appoint someone to fill the Senate until the Franken-Coleman showdown is resolved and someone is certified the winner.

But that may not be the case and, should Pawlenty choose to appoint someone, the Senate may not seat the appointee. A spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid told MPR’s Tom Scheck: “It’s perfectly acceptable for us to just wait to seat somebody until somebody is certified by the state.”