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State Director of Elections Gary Poser, left, and Tony Trimble, a recount attorney for Sen. Norm Coleman, discuss a ballot during the state Canvassing Board's Tuesday hearing. Marc Elias, an attorney for Al Franken, is in the background.

Franken lead at 50; absentee ballots remain

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ST. PAUL - Al Franken increased his slim lead over Sen. Norm Coleman by a few votes this morning as another phase of the U.S. Senate race ended.

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Franken netted four more votes, bringing his lead to 50 votes in unofficial results, as the state Canvassing Board concluded its review of ballots challenged by the two campaigns during the statewide recount.

Marc Elias, Franken's lead recount attorney, said the latest tally bolsters their campaign's prediction the Democrat will win the race.

Coleman recount attorney Tony Trimble called Franken's lead "artificial."

The election outcome now hinges on votes contained in a stack of nearly 1,350 improperly rejected absentee ballots identified by local election officials.

Local officials and the two campaigns are taking part in a series of regional meetings beginning today to determine how many improperly rejected absentee ballots will be counted. Local officials and the two campaigns must agree which of those ballots will be counted.

The Coleman campaign wanted another 654 rejected absentee ballots reviewed. By refusing to review those ballots, Coleman recount attorney Tony Trimble said Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann "has gone to join himself at the hip with the Franken campaign."

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat, said rules created by the Minnesota Supreme Court for the absentee ballot process are clear and a Monday deadline passed without the campaigns agreeing on any additional ballots to be considered.

"Accusations seem to be out of place on something that's so clearly written in black and white," Ritchie said.

Gelbmann told the Canvassing Board this morning there were early reports of difficulties at some of the regional meetings, including in St. Louis County, where the campaigns could not agree to get started with the absentee ballot review.

The secretary of state's office this weekend will open and count all absentee ballots the two campaigns agree were improperly rejected. Those votes can be challenged by the campaigns during that process.

The state Canvassing Board is tentatively scheduled to meet Jan. 5 and 6 to resolve any challenges before declaring official vote totals in the race. A court challenge to that result is expected by the losing candidate. That process would delay the certification of a winner.

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