m6679 BC-MinnesotaSenate-Absen 5thLd-Writethru 11-19 0719
Judge grants Franken ballot access request
Eds: SUBS 7th graf to show no appeal planned.
By BRIAN BAKST
Associated Press Writer
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota judge granted Democratic Senate candidate Al Franken’s request Wednesday for the release of information on voters whose absentee ballots were rejected.
Ramsey County Judge Dale Lindman ordered the county’s election workers to produce the data by the end of the business day.
"With each passing hour, the Franken campaign is irreparably harmed in its efforts to ensure that each valid vote is properly counted and to prepare for the procedures that will decide this election," Lindman wrote in his seven-page order.
Franken is seeking the rosters of disqualified absentee voters in all 87 counties to determine if they were properly rejected.
The ruling, which applies only in the state’s second-largest county, represents a partial victory for Franken. A key elections board hasn’t decided whether to allow wrongly rejected absentee ballots into the statewide recount that got under way Wednesday in the race between Franken and Republican incumbent Norm Coleman.
Lindman issued the order shortly after hearing nearly an hour of arguments Wednesday morning from lawyers for Franken, Coleman and Ramsey County elections officials. Coleman’s campaign wanted the data kept under wraps.
Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky said his office will comply with the order. But he said he had to confer with the county attorney before deciding how. The county attorney’s office said there would be no appeal.
Mansky said rejected absentee ballots usually amount to about 1 percent of the total absentee ballots. This year more than 30,000 absentee ballots were cast in Ramsey County, but he didn’t have a number for how many were rejected.
There is no statewide count on rejected ballots, and Franken’s campaign acknowledged that a large number were likely turned away for legitimate reasons.
During the hearing, Lindman said he was concerned about voter privacy. "But it’s also the transparency of the process" that is at issue, he said. And he said he weighed the privacy rights of voters who want to keep their vote secret against those who don’t want to be disenfranchised.
Franken’s attorneys said the ruling strengthens their case in other counties that have refused to supply the data and with the canvassing board, which will rule on whether to add them to the recount.
"This was not a lawsuit over votes," lead attorney Marc Elias said. "It was not to put votes in or take votes out of the count. Rather, it was a lawsuit to get access to data."
Elias said the campaign will ask other counties if the ruling changes their minds.
In court, Franken attorney David Lillehaug said information provided by other counties has revealed cases where voters felt their absentee ballots were erroneously disregarded.
"It is clear to us that mistakes have been made," Lillehaug told the judge.
Fourteen counties have released the data although two have now tried to retract it, Coleman’s lawyer Fritz Knaak said. He didn’t name them.
Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Darwin Lookingbill said information about ballots that remain sealed should stay private. Rejected absentee ballots are unopened. He also argued that voting absentee involves risks as officials work to prevent fraud and maintain secrecy.
"The ability to vote absentee is not a right, rather it is a privilege," Lookingbill said.
Knaak said Franken appears to be setting up a possible lawsuit challenging the election if the recount doesn’t go his way. The Coleman campaign, he said, doesn’t plan to use the rosters to investigate absentee voters whose ballots were invalidated. But if some are ultimately added to the count, Knaak said Coleman would reap more votes, too.
"It will cut both ways," Knaak said. "Never wish too hard for something. You might get it."