By Scott Wente
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL - Another day and a new dispute.
A major phase in the unresolved U.S. Senate race ended Tuesday when a state elections board concluded its work reviewing ballots challenged during the statewide recount.
But that action gave way to new arguments over improperly rejected absentee ballots that could determine Minnesota's next senator.
In Stevens County, only one absentee ballot was rejected from the count. Auditor/Treasurer Neil Weise said the ballot contained a stamped signature not a written one.
So far, no member of either the Norm Coleman or Al Franken campaigns had contacted the county about the ballot, Weise said, although he noted that the voter has since written a letter to the campaign of the candidate he voted for to inform them why the ballot was completed the way it was and what his intentions were.
The five-member Canvassing Board on Tuesday finished allocating votes challenged by the campaigns during the hand recount of 2.9 million ballots.
The board awarded two more votes to Sen. Norm Coleman and six more to Al Franken. Franken netted four votes, boosting his lead over Coleman from 46 to 50 votes in unofficial results.
Marc Elias, the Democrat's lead recount attorney, said that supports the campaign's theory that Franken will win the election.
"At every stage we've gained votes and we have every reason to believe that's going to be true in the absentee ballot review as well," Elias said.
Coleman attorney Tony Trimble called Franken's lead "artificial." Trimble said Coleman will win if the absentee ballot issue is resolved consistently across the state and if some ballots the Republican's campaign claims were counted twice in the recount are removed.
"We're happy to play the game," Trimble said. "At the end of the day, we think we have the cards."
The double-counted ballot issue would require a post-election lawsuit.
The campaigns' focus Tuesday turned to the review of absentee ballots not counted because they were improperly rejected on or before Election Day.
The Minnesota Supreme Court ordered improperly rejected absentee ballots to be counted only if election officials and the campaigns agreed on which ballots to include. If one campaign disagrees on a ballot, that vote is not counted.
Some problems were reported Tuesday at the start of the regional meetings to review absentee ballots.
Local election officials identified roughly 1,350 improperly rejected absentee ballots. The Franken campaign said all of those should be included.
The Coleman campaign said more than half of those should be counted and wants to review the remaining ballots. But the campaign also wants another 654 ballots added to the review. Franken attorneys opposed that.
By refusing to review those ballots, Trimble said Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann, who met with campaign attorneys prior to the ballot reviews, joined "himself at the hip with the Franken campaign."
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat, said the Supreme Court's rules are straightforward and that a Monday deadline passed without the campaigns agreeing to include additional ballots.
"Accusations seem to be out of place on something that's so clearly written in black and white," Ritchie said.
All improperly rejected absentee ballots to be counted must be submitted to state officials by Friday. Ritchie's office will open and count those ballots Saturday. Those votes can be challenged by the campaigns, just as occurred during the statewide recount.
The Canvassing Board is scheduled to meet Monday and Tuesday to resolve any ballot challenges before declaring official vote totals in the race.
A court challenge to the result is expected by the losing candidate. Under Minnesota law, that process would delay the certification of a winner, which requires the signature of the governor and secretary of state.
At an absentee ballot review meeting in Duluth, the Coleman campaign rejected dozens of the 161 improperly rejected absentee ballots St. Louis County officials said should be counted.
One of those rejected ballots belonged to Mary Bell of Duluth, who voted absentee before the election. The date she listed on the ballot was different than the date listed by her witness, her husband. She said he must have simply written the wrong date.
"I really want my vote counted," Bell told the Duluth News Tribune from California where she and her husband are spending the winter. "That's why we went through the effort to vote [by absentee ballot] before we left."
Ballot reviews went smoothly in some meetings. Beltrami County identified eight improperly rejected absentee ballots. The Coleman campaign objected to one of them, leaving seven to be included in the count.
"It actually went really well," Beltrami County auditor/treasurer Kay Mack said of her meeting with campaign officials.
The Duluth News Tribune contributed to this story.