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Attorneys for Minnesota's U.S. Senate candidates discuss issues in the recount Wednesday before the state Canvassing Board meets. Marc Elias of the Al Franken campaign, right, makes a point to Fritz Knaak of the Norm Coleman campaign. (Tribune photo by Don Davis)

Senate trial opens today with campaigns' arguments

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ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's U.S. Senate election goes on trial today.

Attorneys for Norm Coleman and Al Franken this afternoon will make opening statements to three judges presiding over Coleman's election lawsuit.

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Coleman, a Republican who held a lead heading into a recount but then lost it to Franken, argues that counties applied different standards when considering whether to reject absentee ballots in the election. In order to ensure a uniform counting standard, around 11,000 rejected absentee ballots should be considered in the trial, Coleman says.

Attorneys for Democrat Franken, who led Coleman by 225 votes after the recount, have said more than 100 absentee ballots -- including nearly three dozen from Democrat-friendly Duluth -- were wrongly rejected and should be counted. Coleman argues that rather than looking at small batches of absentee ballots brought by either campaign, all that were rejected should be reviewed.

Additionally, votes were counted twice in the recount and others were included in the tally even though the ballots could not be located, Coleman argues.

The Republican's campaign will try to prove to the judges those irregularities occurred and should be fixed.

Each campaign is trying to pick up votes from areas of the state where its candidate did well. The campaigns will call witnesses, including local election officials such as county auditors. Each side says it is unlikely voters will be called to testify, but have not ruled that out.

"It could be a very, very tedious process," David Schultz, an elections expert and Hamline University professor, said of the trial proceedings.

The three-judge panel, not a jury, will decide the case. The district court judges -- Kurt Marben of Pennington County, Denise Reilly of Hennepin County and Elizabeth Hayden of Stearns County -- were appointed to the case by a Supreme Court justice.

The trial comes nearly three months after the Nov. 4 election, when initial results put Coleman, whose Senate term ended earlier this month, on top. The state-mandated hand recount gave Franken the lead.

Coleman filed a lawsuit, known as an election contest, challenging those results.

The trial, taking place at the Minnesota Judicial Center near the Capitol, could take weeks or longer.

Senate election trials are rare, even nationally. Many states require congressional election challenges that center on alleged voting irregularities to be settled by U.S. Senate or House committees, Franken attorney Marc Elias said.

"The fact that there is an election contest in a state court is extraordinary," he said. "This is going to be an unusual and historic event."

As the election trial opens, Minnesotans have only one U.S. senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar.

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