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State board approves recount, delays disputed absentee ballots decision

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Update 4 p.m.

ST. PAUL - A state elections board today approved the beginning of a statewide U.S. Senate recount, but delayed the most controversial item on the table - whether hundreds of disputed absentee ballots would be counted.

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"We need more time to think," said Mark Ritchie, Canvassing Board chairman and secretary of state.

The board recessed for an undecided period of time to consider whether it can even deal with the absentee issue. Board members said they were flooded with documents from the Senate campaigns and other sources in the hours before their meeting this afternoon.

Ritchie said the Canvassing Board probably will meet again early next week, before Thanksgiving, to take up the issue.

The Al Franken campaign wants rejected absentee ballots examined in hopes of gaining votes. Franken attorney David Lillehaug told the board some voters had their absentee ballots wrongly rejected.

"Can't we all agree that they shouldn't have to start a lawsuit ... before their votes are counted?" he asked.

Franken's opponent, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, disagrees and claims the Canvassing Board has no jurisdiction in the matter.

Examples the Franken campaign gave the board include situations such as a ballot being rejected because the voter was not registered; the campaign claims the voter was registered.

The Coleman campaign today said the Franken efforts are designed to stop the recount. Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak said the campaign was pleased with the board's move to delay a decision, but also said legal precedent suggests those ballots are not to be included.

"The Franken campaign has now clearly shown they will do anything and everything they can to turn this Minnesota recount into another Florida," Coleman Campaign Manager Cullen Sheehan added. "They insultingly charge the majority of Minnesota county boards with failing to comply with state law, and denigrate the legal ruling of the Minnesota attorney general's office. "

The attorney general said the Canvassing Board cannot decide to allow the controversial absentee ballots to be counted, but the Franken campaign disagrees. Franken also is in court demanding a list of voters whose absentee ballots were rejected; a hearings in Ramsey County District Court is set for Wednesday morning.

The five-member board met across the street from the Capitol to order the historic recount. Forty of more than 100 recounting sites begin the work Wednesday; some counties begin the recount as late as Dec. 3.

Ritchie said Wednesday and Thursday will be "really hard days because we will all be learning the process." He said the some problems should be avoided because a statewide recount was conducted following the September primary election.

During the recount, elections officials will examine all ballots cast on Nov. 4 and absentee ballots cast before then, placing each in one of four piles:

-- For Republican Coleman.

-- For Democrat Franken.

-- For another candidate or when officials could not determine the voter's pick.

-- Ballots challenged by the Coleman campaign.

-- Ballots challenged by the Franken campaign.

Challenged ballots will be forwarded to the state Canvassing Board, which will examine each of them to determine who those who cast the ballots wanted to be senator.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said he hopes all counties can finish by Dec. 5. The Canvassing Board then would convene again on Dec. 16 to look over each ballot challenged by either campaign, a task that could involve thousands of votes. That count could determine the state's senator.

Heading into today's meeting, Coleman led Franken by 215 votes. But once a recount was ordered, the count reset to zero.

The recount is automatic under state law because the margin is so thin.

Four judges join Ritchie on the Canvassing Board.

The Coleman and Franken campaigns spent $40 million between them before the Nov. 4 election and each is raising an estimated $1 million for the recount. Both are preparing for court challenges.

During the recount, each campaign could have an attorney at every counting site, in additional to other volunteers who will watch and make challenges for ballots they think should be recounted.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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