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Swift County adjusts recount process; Meeker, Swift and Renville counties work their recounts

Swift County Auditor Byron Giese, center, sorts ballots while Carol Rohlofs, left, and Glen Pederson assist him with counting ballots Thursday in the deadlocked U.S. Senate race between Sen. Norm Coleman, top opposite, and Al Franken, below opposite. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

A spirited exchange between an official for U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and the Swift County auditor took place Thursday morning as the recount of ballots for the U.S. Senate was just getting under way in Benson.

Stacey Barrack, the lead observer for the Coleman campaign, repeatedly asked Auditor Byron Giese to stop the recount and restart the process.

As Giese continued to flip through ballots, Barrack was on the phone in the hallway with the Coleman office to discuss her concerns, while occasionally stepping back into the counting room to loudly reiterate her request that Giese stop the recount.

Barrack objected to Giese's denial of a challenged ballot made by another Coleman observer. She told Giese he had no right to voice his opinion on whether a challenge was frivolous or valid.

She said the observers had the right to challenge ballots and Giese could not deny a challenge.

"Challenge me in court," said Giese, over his shoulder, as the recount of the county's first precinct continued. "I call it a frivolous challenge."

"I want to stop the counting right now," said Barrack, to Giese.

"He told me to get a court order," Barrack said into the phone, as she stepped back into the hall.

"Do not close out the precinct," she shouted to Giese from the doorway of the room where Giese, two assistants and two party observers continued to sort the ballots into piles.

Besides objecting to Giese's denial of a challenged ballot, Barrack also requested that the observers be allowed to see "the backs of every single ballot." She said the observers did not have adequate access to view the ballots.

"Yeah, he's doing tallies," said Barrack to someone in Coleman's office. "We've challenged ballots, but he declined anyway."

As Barrack continued her cell phone conversation in the hall, Giese was informed by his office staff that the deputy secretary of state was on the phone for him.

When Giese returned, he told the team of counters and observers that he would be "adjusting" the methods of processing the ballots and that they would begin counting the precinct over.

Instead of looking for challenged ballots and separating them into the candidate's piles in one step, the team began a multi-step process that gave the observers three opportunities to look at -- and challenge -- each ballot.

First the team looked at the back and front sides of each ballot, while looking for objectionable ballots, and re-stacked the ballots into one pile.

Then the ballots were sorted into separate piles for each candidate.

The next step involved putting the sorted ballots into stacks of 25 -- a process that was carefully watched by the party observers.

In the final step, the stacks of 25 ballots were counted and the tallies finalized.

In a brief interview, Giese said the Secretary of State's office told him "to be more obliging to their requests."

Giese said this was the first time he'd been involved with a recount like this. "It's a learning experience for us, too," he said.

In the end, the initial challenge to the ballot that was made by the Coleman camp that sparked the boisterous objections was withdrawn by the Coleman observer.

The painstakingly thorough process slowed down the count, however, all the precincts were completed Thursday afternoon. Coleman gained one vote and Franken gained two votes. One Coleman ballot was chellenged.

Campaign observers for Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken made 58 challenges to voter ballots Thursday during Meeker County's U.S. Senate recount.

County Auditor Barbara Loch said Thursday evening that observers for the Norm Coleman and Al Franken campaigns challenged 58 ballots that were looked at by Meeker County's six election judges at the county courthouse.

Loch said the election judges finished the recount for its 30 precincts before 6 p.m. Thursday. The judges had started at 8 a.m. and only took a 45-minute lunch break around noon.

The recounted ballots, Loch said, have been "signed and sealed" in preparation for reporting to the Minnesota Secretary of State's office. Loch said Meeker County would report in the morning because "We are exhausted."

If the county hadn't finished Thursday evening, the election judges would have reconvened Friday morning.

Loch said Thursday afternoon the ballot challenges ranged from stray pen-markings and the use of red pen on the ballots to insufficient fill-ins of the voting ovals and a small tear in one of the paper ballots. She said red pen was most likely used on absentee ballots because polling places were informed to use only dark-colored pens.

Nearly four hours into the recount, one election judge complained the continuous ballot counting was impairing his vision.

"My eyes are starting to kill me," Townsend said, as observers of both campaigns leaned over his shoulders. "...My eyes are really giving me trouble now."

Loch complimented the performance of the election judges during their lunch break, saying the observers only complained about the judges occasionally counting the ballots too fast or too slow.

Throughout the day, she said, there was a "constant rotation at the table" as the judges alternated counting and stacking duties.

The recount process also had no problem with campaign observers getting too close to the ballots, Loch said.

"We stayed firm with the process the whole time through," Loch said.

An employee in the Renville County Auditor's Office said the recount, which began at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, was continuing in the late afternoon. There was no word whether the recount was to resume today.

A voter recount Thursday led to nine ballots being challenged by observers from the Norm Coleman and Al Franken campaigns.

Two ballots that had been counted as votes for Coleman were challenged by the Franken observers. Seven ballots that had been counted as votes for Franken were challenged by the Coleman observers, according to Lois Bonde, Yellow Medicine County auditor/treasurer and recount official.

The challenged ballots were placed in sealed envelopes and are being forwarded to the Minnesota Secretary of State's office, said Bonde.

Bonde and a team from her office recounted more than 5,500 ballots in a process that ran from 8:30 a.m. until just minutes before 5 p.m. The recount went well and faster than expected, she said. It had been scheduled for two days.

The final recount figures for the county reported on the Secretary of State's Web site Thursday evening were 2,311 votes for Coleman and 2,167 votes for Franken. The Democratic challenger lost four votes in the Yellow Medicine County recount.

-- Staff writers Garret Felder, Tom Cherveny and David Little contributed to this story.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750