By Don Davis
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL - Al Franken's campaign needs a new story to establish the need for a lawsuit it filed Thursday.
The Minnesota U.S. Senate campaign filed suit in Ramsey County District Court demanding a list of all voters whose absentee ballots were rejected in last week's election. If Franken wins that ruling, his campaign officials said, other counties should follow.
The action is an effort to find votes in Franken's challenge to sitting U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, who leads by 206 votes out of 2.92 million cast going into a statewide recount next week.
A touching story the Franken campaign told at mid-day Thursday about how a Beltrami County women's stroke-impaired signature led to her ballot being rejected proved flawed.
"We are still investigating," Franken spokesman Andy Barr said Thursday night, adding that while the woman's absentee ballot was rejected it was not because of her shaky signature as he reported a few hours earlier.
The woman's story was carried by news organizations in Minnesota and beyond.
Franken's U.S. Senate campaign originally said an 84-year-old Beltrami County woman's post-stroke handwriting did not match her voter registration signature, so election officials rejected her ballot.
The county's top elections official said she told the Franken campaign that was not the case.
"Beltrami County does not have one ballot that was rejected because signatures didn't match and the Franken campaign was clearly told that," County Auditor-Treasurer Kay Mack said. "I don't know where they are getting that from."
Washington-based Marc Elias, Franken's top recount attorney, said the campaign's goal is "to have every vote counted." That includes ballots rejected because signatures do not match those on file, because of question about a witness signature and other irregularities.
Thursday night, Barr said it appears the women's ballot was rejected because of a problem with a witness's signature, but the campaign continues to look into that and other reported voting problems.
"We are hoping we can repeat this process all over the state," Barr said.
The woman did everything she could to vote, Barr said, and it appears her vote should count.
The Beltrami story was the only ballot problem Franken campaign officials would discuss.
Beltrami County gave the campaign a list of voters whose ballots were rejected, one of about a dozen counties to fulfill the campaign's request. Many counties refused, so Franken filed the lawsuit.
The suit is an effort to "strong arm local officials into counting invalid ballots," Coleman Campaign Manager Cullen Sheehan said.
"This is a new low," Sheehan said. "This tactic is simply designed to shove more rejected ballots into the ballot box before the recount takes place next week."
Sheehan called the documents Franken wants "private information." If Franken gets the names, Sheehan added, the Coleman camp is afraid Democrats will harass voters.
While ballots remain secret, a list of voters eventually is public information.
Elias said he expects to ask the state Canvassing Board next week to consider the status of some rejected ballots. If the board does not, he held open the option of taking the matter to court.
Elias said Thursday's suit seeks prompt court action, which could come within days.
While some work the recount in court, both campaigns are organizing volunteers and paid staff.
Barr said his campaign will send 1,250 or more people into the field during the recount process - 250 of whom are attorneys, both paid and volunteer. Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak said he expects "hundreds" of volunteers for his side.
And each campaign is raising money. Barr said he expects about $1 million to be raised by each side for the recount.
The state Canvassing Board meets in St. Paul on Tuesday to certify returns produced by voting machines. The board then should order a state-mandated recount because of the small difference between Coleman and Franken votes.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said he hopes the recount is done by Dec. 5 and the Canvassing Board can meet again for a few days beginning Dec. 16 to make a final decision on any disputed ballots. That meeting could determine who becomes senator.
While his staff is working on the recount, Franken is thanking supporters and working on a transition in case he wins the recount, Barr said.
Franken is talking to Senate leaders and his advisors so he is prepared to go to Washington, Barr added. "It would be irresponsible for him not to."
He also is raising some money for the recount, Barr said.
Also Thursday, Roll Call newspaper reported that Coleman has removed himself from consideration as the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman.
The Capitol Hill newspaper reported Coleman decided to focus on the recount instead of trying to run the committee that recruits and assists Republican Senate candidates.
And a state administrative law judge Thursday dismissed a Coleman lawsuit over a Franken commercial claiming that a watchdog group listed Coleman as one of the four most corrupt U.S. senators. The judge ruled that the group listed just four senators on its corrupt list, so Coleman would be considered one of its four most corrupt.
Brad Swenson of the Bemidji Pioneer contributed to this story.