5 months after election, Minnesota may soon get its second senator or maybe not

McClatchy News Service

ST. PETER, Minn. — Geri Pehrson will be the first to admit she doesn’t pay a lot of attention to politics, but she does recall Norm Coleman winning last November’s Senate race in Minnesota by a couple hundred votes and saying there was no need for a recount.

Then Pehrson remembered the recount putting Al Franken up by a couple hundred votes over Coleman.

Then everything became a legal blur.


"I didn’t think this would go on forever, but now I have my doubts," said Pehrson, who runs an antique shop near the southern Minnesota town of St. Peter.

Five months after Minnesota voters thought they elected a U.S. senator, perhaps they will soon get one. And perhaps not.

A legal ruling last week strongly suggests that Democrat Franken, the comedian-turned-politician, will eke out a narrow victory over Republican Coleman, the incumbent. A state appeals court panel will meet Tuesday to oversee the counting of up to 400 absentee ballots, a tiny but potentially pivotal sliver of the 2.9 million votes cast last fall, and eventually rule on the disputed election that has Franken up by 225 votes.

The outcome hinges, though, on when the court battles end. The painstaking re-examination of the November election has tried the patience of Minnesota voters, who have watched as lawyers, judges and out-of-town politicians and bloggers weigh in on the Senate race that doesn’t seem to want to end.

Pehrson is not alone among voters who worry that their statewide election is being hijacked by out-of-state interests. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has promised "World War III" if Democrats try to seat Franken, and the GOP leadership in Washington has urged Coleman to continue appealing court rulings that he loses.

But to what end? asked residents in Nicollet County, one of the few counties in the state where voters were close to evenly split between Coleman and Franken.

"There has to be a time limit on this," said Lee Blue, a legal software writer from St. Peter who voted for Franken. "Look at the situation with Al Gore in 2000. When Bush went ahead, Gore conceded. There has to be a point where someone takes the moral high ground."

Nonsense, said Mike Mans, a Nicollet insurance agent and Coleman supporter. "I’d like to see this (impasse) go on forever."


So do others, such as the St. Paul Saints minor league baseball team, which has planned a bobblehead doll night for late May. The doll features the faces of Coleman and Franken on the same head, dressed like Count von Count of "Sesame Street." The doll will be named Re-Count.

Franken has been ahead, based on a recount that was completed in early January, but continued legal challenges have prevented the election from being certified by Minnesota’s secretary of state, Democrat Mark Ritchie, and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Until they certify the election result, Franken cannot take a seat in the Senate, meaning Democrats effectively have 58 seats instead of 59 and Minnesota has only one senator.

Coleman promised last week that he would appeal the upcoming appeals court ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which would almost certainly delay any resolution into May. Another possible scenario is going to the U.S. Supreme Court, which would drag things out further, or filing a lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of the November election.

"Clearly there is some impatience that this has dragged on for a long time. ... There’s a desire to put this thing out of its misery," said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. "Yet there is a solid majority that believes this has been handled very well, and they accept the legitimacy of the outcomes."

That could change, Jacobs cautioned, if Franken’s lead is upheld by the Minnesota high court, Coleman appeals to the Supreme Court and Pawlenty refuses to certify the election. Then, Jacobs said, "all hell could break loose."

This is new territory for Minnesota, which prides itself on orderliness and clean politics. In the 1962 governor’s race, a state court ruled that Democrat Karl Rolvaag defeated Republican Elmer Andersen by 91 votes. Anderson declined to appeal the decision. That was a long time ago, and politics — even in comparatively genteel Minnesota — is not about surrendering in tight races.

Despite all the resources spent in the fight — nearly $40 million in the election alone — neither candidate is wildly popular with voters. Each collected 42 percent of the vote, with thinly financed Independent candidate Dean Barkley getting 15 percent. The winner — now it looks like Franken — will not go to Washington with the warm wishes of the majority.

"I’m angry at government in general and at Franken and Coleman in particular," said Vern Starke, a boat builder in Nicollet who voted for Barkley.


"This is unbelievable," Starke added. "But like everyone else, I don’t have a clue as to what to do about it."

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