ST. PAUL -- U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman demands election data from county and state officials, his campaign wondering why vote totals are changing following Tuesday's election.
The campaign especially was concerned about changes on northeast Minnesota's Iron Range in the close U.S. Senate race, headed toward a mandatory hand recount of each of the 2.9 million ballots.
At 5 p.m. Friday, Republican Coleman had 1,211,542 votes, and Democrat Al Franken 1,211,304. The vote totals frequently have changed since votes originally were recorded, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said, because election workers in the state's 4,130 precincts have corrected small mistakes as they went over their paperwork.
At one point early Wednesday, Ritchie's office reported Coleman leading by more than 700 votes. That shrank to the 238 margin Friday afternoon and Ritchie said it could continue to change through Monday, when each county must finish its initial corrections.
Ritchie said he expects the statewide recount to begin on Nov. 19. He said he hopes the state Canvassing Board can begin meeting on Dec. 16 and settle the election a few days later.
After the state board makes its decision, or maybe earlier, courts could become involved.
Ritchie said vote totals always change after Election Day as local officials check their original work. He said there is nothing unusual in the changes occurring this week.
Coleman's campaign, however, feared the incumbent was getting the short end of the deal.
"Minnesota has a history of fair and clean elections, and we are committed to ensuring that this election is no different," Coleman Campaign Manager Cullen Sheehan said. "That is why it is so troubling to us that instead of the normal slight changes in vote totals one would expect during this process, we are now seeing huge chunks of votes appearing and disappearing -- statistically dubious and improbable shifts that are overwhelmingly accruing to the benefit of Al Franken."
Ritchie, a Democrat, did not like Sheehan's comment.
"It seems like there is a strategy to create a cloud over the election," Ritchie said. "It is a well-known political strategy."
Sheehan said the campaign learned Thursday evening that 100 votes from a Mountain Iron precinct were added to the secretary of state's returns -- and all of them favored Democrats Barack Obama and Franken.
Sheehan said the St. Louis County auditor provided a tape listing vote totals from a Mountain Iron ballot machine dated Nov. 2, two days before the election. He said the county auditor was unable to provide a tape dated election night.
Sheehan said the campaign expects vote totals to fluctuate while counties review their data, but said Franken has benefited most.
"I think it's questionable that the overwhelming gains have obviously been with one candidate," he said.
Sheehan said while the Coleman campaign will not rule out filing a lawsuit challenging election results, it is too early to speculate on that possibility.
Paul Tynjala, St. Louis County elections director, said a mistake was made when Mountain Iron election officials reported their totals to the county auditor's office late Tuesday night. The mistake was discovered when the ballot scanning machine tapes were reviewed later.
Tynjala said the mistake occurred when wrong numbers were either phoned in by the city or written down wrong by a county official in Duluth.
Election officials say that is why actual voting machine tapes are reviewed for the official vote total.
"The early (phoned-in) numbers are always unofficial until the canvass is done, and that will be Monday,' Tynjala said. "People make mistakes. It happens all the time. But the races usually aren't this close so the changes don't make a difference in the outcome.'
Tynjala bristled at the suggestion by the Coleman campaign that the changes were "unexplained' and "improbable and statistically dubious.'
"Yeah, that stings a bit..." he said. "But we know the system works and we caught the mistake and now it's fixed. No one is playing any games with elections up here.'
Franken's campaign pointed out that vote total changes occur in many elections. Two years ago, for instance, thousands of votes changed in the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Amy Klobuchar, who won, and Republican Mark Kennedy.
Coleman attorneys sent letters to all 87 county auditors and Ritchie demanding copies of election-related materials, including tapes vote machines produced showing votes cast.
The changing-vote issue did not arise during a Friday meeting among secretary of state, campaign and attorney general representatives, Ritchie said.
He called the meeting productive and calm, leading to agreement on recount procedures.
Duluth News Tribune reporter John Meyers and state Capitol reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.