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Battle over Senate seat grinds on; Democrats move closer to claiming victory

McClatchy News Service

MINNEAPOLIS — From Hastings to Washington, D.C., the battle over Minnesota’s heated U.S. Senate race raged Tuesday, as Democrats edged closer to declaring victory for Al Franken and campaign lawyers sparred over counting hundreds of rejected absentee ballots at meetings across the state.

"At this stage, it appears that Franken will be certified the winner by the state Canvassing Board," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "We’re keeping abreast of the situation and will make a decision with regard to Senate action at the appropriate point in the process."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., went further, saying that if the Canvassing Board declares a winner on Monday, the Senate should "consider seating that person pending litigation."

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That brought a sharp retort from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who suggested the GOP will try to block any effort by Democrats to seat Franken before all legal issues in the recount are settled.

Under Minnesota law, once the Canvassing Board certifies the results, there is a seven-calendar-day period during which a campaign may file its intention to contest the election in court. Only after that seven-day period could Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie sign an election certificate officially declaring the winner, Ritchie said Tuesday. And if there is a legal contest, the certificate would be inactive until the contest is over.

A protracted court battle seemed more likely than ever Tuesday as Norm Coleman’s campaign attempted to have counties reconsider 654 absentee ballots that local officials have said were correctly rejected.

The Franken campaign, some counties and the secretary of state oppose that move, saying the absentee ballot review should focus instead on the 1,346 that county officials say were improperly rejected.

Those ballots come from precincts that mostly favored Franken in the Nov. 4 election, while the 654 came from areas more favorable to Coleman.

Under a ruling this month by the state Supreme Court, the counties and campaigns must agree on which rejected absentee ballots should be counted, and local election officials must send those ones to the secretary of state’s office by the end of Friday. The secretary’s office will then open and count the ballots and give the results to the Canvassing Board to review Monday.

At a meeting Tuesday in Anoka, Coleman lawyer Chris Tiedeman said the 1,346 ballots that the counties say were improperly rejected shouldn’t be counted unless the other 654 are reconsidered. Franken lawyer Steve Kaplan replied, "Let me cut to the chase. We’re not going to agree to any of the 654. The 654 is from left field."

Anoka County elections manager Rachel Smith sized up the situation. "I don’t want to waste anybody’s time here," she said, after it soon became apparent that the two campaigns were not close to reaching agreement. The meeting broke up later with no agreements.

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Hennepin County will take up the issue of rejected absentee ballots Wednesday morning, grappling with 329 that local officials say were wrongly rejected, as well as with another 170 that Coleman wants reconsidered and an additional 30 that Franken wants reviewed.

Because of the requirement that all parties agree on which rejected absentee ballots should be counted, disagreements could prevent hundreds of ballots that may have been improperly rejected from being sent to the secretary of state’s office to meet Friday’s deadline.

Also Tuesday, the Canvassing Board approved the final allocation of all challenged ballots in the recount battle, nudging Franken’s unofficial lead over Coleman to 49.

Afterward, Franken said in a statement: "As it appears that we’re on track to win, I want Minnesotans to know that I’m ready to get to work for them in Washington on Day One."

But the Coleman campaign threatened last week to sue if Franken is declared the winner. The senator’s camp has claimed that more than 100 votes in largely Democratic precincts were counted twice. And on Tuesday, Coleman attorney Tony Trimble said the campaign might also sue over rejected absentee ballots.

Hastings was the locale Tuesday for the review of rejected absentee ballots from Dakota, Scott and Carver counties.

It remained unclear whether the parties would get through the 174 Dakota County ballots that are part of the review by the end of Wednesday. It also was unclear whether another 80 ballots that Coleman wants reconsidered would be reviewed.

As for the 25 Scott County ballots that were part of the review, the campaigns agreed to send 11 on to the secretary of state and rejected 14 others. Four ballots were forwarded from Carver County.

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In St. Louis County, election officials turned down the Coleman campaign’s request to have 30 absentee ballots added to the 161 they had already identified as being wrongly rejected. In the end, it was agreed that 101 ballots would be sent to the secretary of state’s office for counting.

At a meeting in Bemidji, Beltrami County officials and campaign representatives reviewed eight absentee ballots that had been judged wrongly rejected and agreed to send seven to St. Paul.

In Elk River, Sherburne County officials and campaign representatives looked at 18 ballots and forwarded 15. Three ballots were rejected by one or the other of the campaigns because of the lack of a signature.

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