By Don Davis
and Scott Wente
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL - Al Franken took a lead today on what is supposed to be the final day the state Canvassing Board considers challenged U.S. Senate ballots.
But with thousands of other ballots still not counted, the lead could be short lived.
Franken entered today with a single-digit deficit to incumbent U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman. The Democrat was expected to continue to build a lead today, but other disputed ballots remain uncounted.
The Coleman campaign said a bunch of ballots yet to be counted will give their man the lead once again.
The Canvassing Board is looking over about 1,000 ballots that one campaign or the other said raised questions about the voters' intent. Most of the campaigns' challenges have been overruled by the board and local elections officials' original rulings reinstated.
Today is the fourth day the five-member board has look at the ballots, trying to determine who each voter intended to support.
Coleman lead Franken by about 200 votes at the beginning of the week, but that lead dropped in the last couple of days as the board considered ballots the Coleman campaign challenged. Most of those ballots were for Franken. However, many Franken challenges remain to be counted, and most of them will be for Coleman.
"So while varying headlines and a flurry of different numbers will continue, we encourage everyone to just hang on until the process is finished," Coleman spokesman Mark Drake wrote to supporters this morning. "When it is finished, Norm Coleman will still lead, and we believe, be re-elected to the United States Senate."
Besides the ballots the board is examining, more than 5,000 ballots the two campaigns originally challenged, but later told state officials to count, remain uncounted. Also, an estimated 1,500 improperly rejected absentee ballots remain to be counted. And there may be several hundred more disputed ballots, including some the Coleman campaign suspects were counted twice.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said the Canvassing Board will complete its challenged ballot review today.
Board members said, however, they do not want to consider challenges made by the Coleman campaign to most of the ballots it said were counted twice during the recount.
Coleman today asked the state Supreme Court to disallow counting of any ballots that may have been counted twice.
The campaign said at least 100 votes, including in the Democratic stronghold of Minneapolis, were double counted by election officials during the recount. That category includes original ballots and duplicates made on election night after the original ballot was damaged and not counted. The original and duplicate were supposed to be attached, but that did not happen in some cases and led to double counting during the recount, the campaign claims.
Franken's attorneys argue that double counting only is a theory that the Coleman campaign is pushing because it is concerned the senator could lose the race.
Canvassing Board members said double counting may have occurred, confirming that would require gathering evidence beyond what appears on ballots. That is not the job of the board, members said.
A Thursday state Supreme Court ruling that orders the campaigns and elections officials to decide what rejected absentee ballots to count pretty much guarantees that the Senate race will not be decided until next year. It set a Dec. 31 deadline for counties to report on what ballots should be counted.