Campaigns seize on testimony
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL - Attorneys for Norm Coleman and Al Franken each claim one man's testimony boosted their case, but he said the court, not a campaign, was the intended beneficiary.
The man in the middle was Jim Gelbmann, the deputy secretary of state who was involved in the Senate recount and was the first major witness in the Senate election trial.
Norm Coleman's campaign called Gelbmann, a Woodbury resident, to testify as it tries to convince a three-judge panel to overturn election results showing Al Franken won by 225 votes.
Coleman's campaign is trying to show the court that ballots were treated differently around the state and that some validly cast absentee ballots were wrongly rejected and should be counted. Attorney Joe Friedberg asked Gelbmann about specific absentee ballots, including one that was rejected because the witness signed her first name differently than the name state officials had on file.
"There isn't any question in your mind it should be let in, correct?" Friedberg asked.
"In my opinion, no," Gelbmann said.
But under a Minnesota Supreme Court order, each campaign could and did block some improperly rejected absentee ballots from being included in the recount, he added.
Coleman attended the trial's third day and said Gelbmann helped him.
"He clearly stated there are (valid) absentee ballots ... and those votes aren't counted," the Republican said.
Franken attorney David Lillehaug used his cross-examination of Gelbmann to suggest that Coleman's position on absentee ballots has changed. That is a key reason the Democrat's campaign says the election results should not be overturned.
The Coleman campaign wants up to 12,000 rejected absentee ballots reviewed by the trial judges, but Franken attorneys argue that those were reviewed multiple times and local officials did the best they could to count valid ballots.
"Mr. Gelbmann's testimony has reiterated and made clear our central point which is that these election officials were professionals," Franken attorney Marc Elias said. Elias acknowledged that Franken believes there are some improperly rejected absentee ballots that have not been counted.
Gelbmann said his testimony, which is expected to continue today, is not meant to help either campaign.
"I hope not, that's not my intention," he said during a trial break. "I'm just stating the facts and stating what happened."
Gelbmann said he only is trying to provide information about the election and recount for the three judges hearing the case.
"I think I'm adding a lot of knowledge for them as to how these processes work," he said.
Much of Friedberg's questioning dealt with a list Gelbmann compiled of absentee ballots that local election officials rejected even though, upon his review, it appeared there was "little doubt" they should have been opened and counted. He made the list during the recount.
One of those ballots belonged to a Park Rapids voter identified in the trial with the initials "T.J.Q." Precinct election officials did not open and count the ballot on Election Day because they did not find the voter's name in the voter roster, Gelbmann said. However, Hubbard County officials later said the ballot was mistakenly rejected because of confusion over the voter's hyphenated last name.
"In my mind, there was little doubt that ballot was wrongfully rejected," Gelbmann said.
Another ballot came from Madison in western Minnesota, where local election officials rejected it on election night because they said signatures from the voter or witness did not match. After later reviewing the ballot later, the Lac qui Parle County auditor decided it should be counted, but it was not included in the recount.
Gelbmann said election officials are trained to "err on the side of accepting the vote."
"We do not want to disenfranchise anyone," he said.
A stack of 34 Washington County absentee ballots were rejected and not counted even though, in some cases, the voter or witness living at a temporary residence such as a college dormitory mistakenly included the wrong address on their absentee ballot documents.
When it came time to consider including those in the recount, Gelbmann said the secretary of state's office deferred to Washington County officials' decision not to try to contact the voters or witnesses to verify their information.
Gelbmann stood by Washington County's decision, though he admitted another county might have responded differently.
"They were trying to give the person the benefit of the doubt, but in the end they said since we cannot prove this person is a Minnesota resident, we're not going to send this ballot in to be counted," he said.
Gelbmann's own political background and leanings became a brief topic of discussion during the trial.
Lillehaug, the Franken attorney, asked Gelbmann to explain how he was familiar with voting trends in certain counties.
Gelbmann said he was campaign manager for former Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton in 2008. He admitted in court that he recently told the South Washington County Bulletin newspaper which candidate he voted for in the 2008 Senate race, but did not identify that candidate in court.
Outside the courtroom, Gelbmann said he voted for neither Coleman nor Franken, instead choosing Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley.
"The tone of the campaigns were beneath what Minnesota deserves," Gelbmann said. "We deserve to hear a campaign on the issues, not the mudslinging that went back and forth constantly on the TV."
Also, Gelbmann said, he used to work with Barkley during the Jesse Ventura administration and thought he would make a good senator.
For U.S. Senate trial information, along with other political updates, visit www.areavoices.com/CapitolChat