ST. PAUL - Minnesotans who endured a lengthy U.S. Senate race now could be forced to wait into December, or longer, to see who actually won.
Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman collected 727 more votes than Democratic challenger Al Franken, unofficial secretary of state returns show. But state law mandates a recount of every one of the nearly 3 million ballots cast because the election is a virtual tie.
The final tally, before the recount, shows Coleman with 1,211,628 votes, for 42 percent. Franken followed with 1,210,901, which was 41.97 percent. The Independence Party's Dean Barkley trailed with 437,308 votes, 15.16 percent of the vote.
The closeness of the race convinced The Associated Press to withdraw its declaration of Coleman as the winner. The AP said it called the race prematurely. The AP and the secretary of state's vote tallies differed by 156 votes.
The 0.03 percent margin between Franken and Coleman was well within the 0.5 percent difference that brings a statewide, and state funded, recount.
Franken said this morning that what he called "irregularities" may be enough to erase that margin in a recount.
"This race is too close to call," Franken said at 6:40 a.m.
Moments earlier, The Associated Press declared Coleman the winner, not taking into account any changes that may be made by a mandatory recount.
"The senator is thrilled and humbled to be given the opportunity to serve the people of Minnesota for another six years," Coleman Campaign Manager Cullen Sheehan said. "Today is a time for us to come together as a state and a nation. There is much work to be done, and the senator is ready to roll up his sleeves and bring people together to get it done."
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said the recount will not begin until Nov. 19, at the earliest. And it could take weeks, longer if one or both candidates challenge the recount in court.
"How many courts, how many lawyers, how many challenges - we don't know," Ritchie said. "We just don't know yet."
The Senate race was one of the most closely watched in the country, and lawyers and others with ties to the race are expected to pour into Minnesota to watch - and maybe challenge - the recount.
State and local officials recently completed a Supreme Court primary race recount, which Ritchie said gave workers practice.
"There will be many more ballots and a lot more partisan participation in the process," he said of the Senate recount. "So that will add a significant amount of time."
He could hot estimate how long the recount will take.
Each ballot must be checked by hand, Ritchie said. His office will work with county and city officials.
"Every ballot will be examined for the voters' intent," the secretary said.
Franken could waive a recount, but said today that he will not give up. He said his campaign, and that of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, heard about several problems on Election Day that could lead to a change in the returns. The only reported irregularity he or his campaign's attorney, David Lillehaug, would mention was a shortage of voter registration documents in Minneapolis.
This morning's developments are fitting for a Senate race that was the costliest in the country, and the state's history.
"At the end of the day, there is reason to believe the voice of the people will be heard," Franken said.
He added: "This has been a long campaign. It is going to be a little longer."
Lillehaug said several cases of irregularities had been reported, but said at least some probably have no merit.
Minnesota GOP Chairman Ron Carey praised Coleman and said "we're confident the results will stand."
The last major recount was in the 1962 governor's race.
Much national attention is expected to shine on Minnesota during the recount, although not as much as after the 2000 presidential race.
"It won't be Florida 2000, where the fate of the western world was at stake," Ritchie said. "But it will be very high interest."