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Count of sealed Minn. Senate ballots begins

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- The count of more than 950 sealed absentee ballots in Minnesota's Senate recount crawled along Saturday, in part to make sure voter's names won't be attached to their actual votes.

It came on the day Republican Norm Coleman's term as senator officially expired. He entered this step trailing Democratic challenger Al Franken by 49 votes.

The ballots under consideration are among those rejected by poll workers but later found to be excluded in error. The campaigns later agreed they should be added to the recount.

But before the counting process started Saturday morning, Coleman's campaign objected to moving forward. Attorney Tony Trimble demanded the counting wait until the Supreme Court rules on the campaign's request to add hundreds more ballots to the mix.

"We feel you are proceeding in a very inconsistent and unconstitutional manner," Trimble told representatives of the secretary of state's office.

Franken's lawyer Marc Elias said if the court wanted to delay the count it would have ordered it halted.

Things got going after the secretary of state's office consulted the attorney general's office.

The painstaking process of preparing the ballots for counting meant not a single one had actually been counted by a lunch break. Each ballot is supposed to be enclosed in an unmarked secrecy envelope inside of an envelope containing the voter's name. The morning was spent segregating the two envelopes to prevent anyone from connecting a person's vote to their name.

The 952 absentee ballots are from around Minnesota. They were among nearly 12,000 rejected on or before Nov. 4. Local officials re-examined them under a court order and decided they should have been counted. The court, however, required signoff from the campaigns. Another 400 identified by local officials were struck by one of the campaigns.

Minnesota has four legal reasons for rejecting an absentee ballot: If the voter's name and address on the envelope don't match their application; if their signature isn't genuine; if the voter isn't properly registered or eligible; or if the voter has been found to have already voted in the election.

The state Supreme Court ordered that rejected absentees be included in cases where the candidates and local officials agreed errors were made.

Coleman's campaign has a pending request before the high court to include an additional 650 ballots it says were improperly rejected but not forwarded by local officials to St. Paul for counting.

The court has not said when it would rule in that case.

The end of the recount is pushing within sight though. The state Canvassing Board will reconvene Monday and, if need be, Tuesday to consider challenges to the actual ballots from the weekend count. Campaigns can challenge ballots where they think voter intent is unclear or there is another deficiency that would disqualify it.

When that is done, the board will declare which candidate received the most overall votes in the election. That declaration opens a seven-day window for the losing candidate to challenge the result in court. Such a lawsuit could take months to resolve and leave Minnesota with only one senator for the time being.

Coleman's campaign has said there is little doubt it will challenge the outcome if the senator was on the losing end. Franken's campaign has refused to outline its potential next steps.