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Judges set limit to the number of ballots for counting in U.S. Senate trial

ST. PAUL -- A judicial panel could review at least 5,000 uncounted absentee ballots for counting in the U.S. Senate election trial.

Judges ruled Tuesday that Norm Coleman can argue to include in the election tally absentee ballots it believes were wrongly rejected in the Nov. 4 election. Coleman is challenging Al Franken's 225-vote victory in court.

The ruling, which came on the trial's seventh day, means county election officials may have work to do in the coming days or weeks and that the trial could last several weeks or longer.

The three judges hearing the case said Coleman can bring forward absentee ballots it claims were legally cast but not counted in the election and statewide recount.

The ruling also said Coleman can submit absentee ballots it believes were completed improperly by voters because of election administrators' errors. An example would be when a voter fills out an absentee ballot in front of an election official, but that official fails to tell the voter a signature or other information is missing from the document.

Coleman's campaign says those two categories make up 4,797 ballots from around the state.

As the trial got under way, Coleman said all of Minnesota's 11,000 rejected absentee ballots should be part of the proceeding in order to create a level playing field, but it believes only 4,500 to 5,500 of those may have been wrongly discarded, attorney Ben Ginsberg said.

Franken attorney Marc Elias said only a small percentage of the absentee ballots that were rejected by election officials were wrongly discarded and should be counted. The Democrat's campaign wanted the court to include fewer ballots in the trial.

"It's neither a loss nor a win," Elias said of the decision.

The ruling suggests counties around the state will have to send to the courts the sealed envelopes containing those ballots that will be reviewed. It also is possible voters and county officials will be called to testify about specific ballots.

"As of now, that's the way we're proceeding," Ginsberg said.

Inside the St. Paul courtroom Tuesday, Coleman attorneys continued trying to show that counties applied different standards when considering which absentee ballots to count in the election and recount.

Coleman attorneys said that claim was validated by testimony from a Washington County official, who acknowledged his county's absentee ballot review varied slightly from another county's review.