By Scott Wente
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL - Al Franken took a lead of more than 300 votes Tuesday as a three-judge panel counted U.S. Senate absentee ballots that had not been counted before.
The Democrat's lead over Norm Coleman grew to 312 votes with the count in what could be the final day of Minnesota's U.S. Senate trial. Before Tuesday, Franken led by 225 votes.
Tuesday's activity, the only counting done in court, is receiving more attention than during seven weeks of testimony, with a crowd packing a courtroom generally used by the state Supreme Court.
Franken gained 198 and Coleman 111 votes in today's count of 351 ballots. Other candidates picked up the rest.
The Minnesota Judicial Center courtroom this morning filled up with reporters, campaign staff, family of court staff and some members of the public. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie also was there. The trial resumed at 9:35 p.m., five minutes late.
All had to walk through a metal detector to get in, the first time anyone can recall a metal detector being used for the Senate recount proceedings.
A three-judge panel was to decide today how many of nearly 400 rejected absentee ballots will be counted in the race between Franken and Republican Coleman. As court began, it was not clear when the judges will make final decisions.
Coleman is seeking to overturn Franken's 225-vote recount victory, but Franken's lawyers are optimistic his lead will be upheld and Coleman already has signaled an appeal to the state Supreme Court. The loser in that step could appeal to federal courts.
As the state-court case is winding down, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Monday legal appeals could delay the seating of Minnesota's second senator for "a few more months."
Coleman led the vote after last November's election, but Franken took the lead after a statewide recount. That is when Coleman challenged the outcome in court.
The judges last week ordered 400 ballots sent to St. Paul from around the state, and a final batch of ballots - from Carlton, Freeborn and Wright counties - arrived Monday at Ritchie's office.
The unopened absentee ballots - enclosed in sealed envelopes - were handed over to the court. The judges reviewed the ballot envelopes behind closed doors Monday.
Among the ballots the judges sought were eight from Washington County. But one of those - belonging to Brenda Lou Peavie of Woodbury - was counted during the Senate recount, said Kevin Corbid, a Washington County election official.
"My assumption is there was a lot of names and a lot of documents and I imagine it was a huge task to try to get this right," Corbid said. "My guess is they weren't aware it was already counted."
Corbid did not send the counted ballot, but included with the rest of the ballots a document explaining that one already has been tallied.
Two of the 40 ballots sought from St. Louis County were included in the recount tally, said Lisa Athey of the county auditor's office. Those two ballots belonged to Duluth residents Janet George and Robert Reese, Athey said, adding it is not clear why the judges requested them.
"Maybe they were kind of overwhelmed," said Athey, whose county sent 38 other ballot envelopes to the court.
In all, 13 ballots the judges wanted to examine already had been counted and were not sent to the Judicial Center.