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Updated: Minnesota court declares Franken winner in U.S. Senate race

Updated 6:30 p.m.

ST. PAUL - Al Franken won the U.S. Senate race and should be sent to Washington, a Minnesota three-judge panel ruled this evening.

However, even before the ruling, Norm Coleman pledged to appeal the expected loss to the state Supreme Court. And there is a good chance the loser at that level will appeal to the U.S. courts, meaning it still may be months before a new senator is seated.

Today's ruling said the election did not violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, as Coleman had claimed. It also indicates the election was fair and that each county properly adopted ballot counting rules, even if the 87 counties did not follow the same exact procedure.

"Election officials exercised reasonable discretion within the confines of Minnesota election law and under a comprehensive, statewide training program in determining whether a voter met the statutory requirement of absentee voting," the judges wrote in a 68-page ruling.

The major dispute in the trial, which included seven weeks of testimony, was whether thousands of absentee ballots that had been rejected in the Nov. 4 election should have been counted. In the end, the judges decided fewer than 400 previously uncounted ballots should be tallied.

Democrat Franken won by 312 votes over Republican Coleman, whose first Senate term ended Jan. 3, leaving Minnesota with just one senator in Washington.

Coleman tried to get the most ballots counted possible, giving him a chance to overcome a 225-vote deficit. Most of the votes the judges allowed to be counted went to Franken.

Coleman led Franken after the Nov. 4 election and entered a statewide recount of 2.9 million ballots on top. The recount ended with Franken leading by 225 votes, and Coleman filed his election lawsuit.

Coleman's appeal, which must be filed within 10 days of the judges' final decision in the trial, would delay the winner receiving a signed election certificate.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said law prohibits him from signing an election certificate until any state-level appeals are resolved. The certificate originates in his office, but Secretary of State Mark Ritchie also must sign the certificate. Ritchie also refused to sign a certificate until the race is decided.

Obtaining a signed election certificate is a crucial step toward being seated in the Senate.

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.