Both Candidates Declare Victory in Minnesota Recount

Posted December 5, 2008 at 12:31pm

Updated: 6:22 p.m.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — With the recount between Sen. Norm Coleman (R) and comedian Al Franken (D) all but finished, both campaigns on Friday declared that they were ahead going into the next phase of the recount.

Now the attention is turning to the whopping 6,600-plus ballots that the two campaigns are challenging and that will most likely determine the outcome of the election.

The final gasps of the hand recount have also increased the tensions between the two campaigns. The Franken camp completed the day by sending an e-mail that stated: “Franken holds a 4 vote lead over Coleman as hand count ends.”

The Coleman campaign issued a statement from campaign manager Cullen Sheehan: “While we are pleased that we remain ahead in this recount, we want to give our thanks and appreciation for all Minnesota’s local election officials for their commitment to a fair, legal and transparent process.”

Local news organizations reported on Friday that Coleman was leading by 192 votes, but that does not include one Minneapolis precinct that is reportedly missing 133 ballots. The recount in that precinct will remain open until the ballots are found.

The report of the missing ballots created a flurry of activity between the secretary of state’s office and the Franken and Coleman camps. During a search Friday in a Minneapolis warehouse for the ballots, workers found a plastic bag with about a dozen uncounted, overseas absentee ballots. It is not clear if the ballots will be counted. The hunt for the missing 133 ballots will continue in other locations on Monday.

Minneapolis Elections Director Cindy Reichert said she couldn’t find the missing ballots, which had originally been counted on Election Day. Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie (D) ruled to keep the recount open in the precinct until the ballots were found and sent Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann to help find the ballots and act as an official witness.

“These ballots must be found,” Franken’s lead recount attorney, Marc Elias, said in a statement. “The outcome of this election is at stake. But let me be clear: The integrity of this election is also at stake, as is the integrity of Minnesota’s electoral process. We won’t stand for the disenfranchisement of 133 Minnesota voters, and neither will the people of this state. Find the ballots.”

Coleman’s campaign said this should not become a partisan matter and accused the secretary of state’s office of biased treatment towards the Franken campaign.

“I think any time you leave a precinct open indefinitely, you raise the possibility, the suggestion of mischief,” Fritz Knaak, Coleman’s lead recount attorney, warned during a news conference with reporters.

He also raised concerns over the conduct by the secretary of state’s office over the missing ballots and asked officials there to take a step back from the process. Knaak expressed disappointment over the office’s decision to review so-called “legally rejected” absentee ballots without Ritchie’s consent.

On Friday, the Franken campaign sent a memo to all 87 counties in Minnesota urging them to count improperly rejected absentee ballots. However, the Canvassing Board is scheduled to hold a meeting on what to do about improperly rejected absentee ballots on Dec. 12. Ritchie has estimated that 500 to 1,000 improperly rejected ballots exist.

Local news organizations, which are updating precincts’ Election Day totals once the recount figures are available, show Coleman with a 192-vote lead — a drop from Thursday, when Coleman started the day with a 316-vote spread over Franken.

While the numbers remain murky and speculation builds over who will come out ahead by the end of the epic process, the more than 6,600 challenged ballots are taking a prominent role in the recount. It is clear that the election will be decided by the Canvassing Board, composed of Ritchie and four judges, some of whom were appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R).

The Canvassing Board will review all the challenged ballots starting on Dec. 16 in hopes of reaching some consensus on ballots where the voter’s intent is difficult to determine. But elections officials believe that many of the candidates’ challenges to some of the ballots are frivolous, and the Canvassing Board has asked both campaigns to withdraw thousands of them.

The Franken campaign has said it will withdraw 633 challenges, while the Coleman campaign has said it will be withdrawing 650. The two campaigns are expected to meet ahead of the Dec. 16 board meeting, to further whittle down the total number of challenges.