Challenger Maintains Lead Over Sen. Burns

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006; 11:26 AM

Montana elections officials continued working today to sort out the result in a closely fought race that could determine control of the U.S. Senate, with software problems forcing a retabulation in one key county and several hundred provisional ballots remaining to be counted.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Democratic challenger Jon Tester maintained a lead of about 1,700 votes over incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, the Associated Press reported.

According to election officials in several key counties, the figure included absentee ballots, but did not include provisional votes that were to be tallied later today.

In Yellowstone County, which includes Burns's hometown of Billings, software problems led officials to retabulate the vote, said Brock Lowrance, communications director for the state Republican Party. That process was completed this morning.

In Flathead County, an election official said that earlier reports of damaged ballots were not accurate, and that the county would be finished its tally once 200 provisional ballots were reviewed.

Results from Silverbow County and its county seat of Butte -- another major population center, this one considered to lean Democratic -- was also late in reporting. In Silverbow, an election official said the delay was caused when a discrepancy of several hundred votes emerged between a printed version of the results, and the numbers tabulated by the county's voting software. He said the problem was close to being reconciled.

A state official said the only main result outstanding was from rural Meagher County, an area that encompasses a single voting precinct and has a population of only around 2,000. Deputy county clerk Carol Anderson said the county uses a hand ballot system, and that election judges would resume counting today. She said the county expected around 750 to 850 to have voted in the Senate race.

The outcomes in Montana and Virginia will determine whether Republicans retain control of the Senate, or whether Democrats take control of the upper chamber as well.

The count in both states will be closely watched.

"We need to make sure that every vote is counted. We've typically done well with absentee ballots -- let's see what happens," said Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman.

Both parties in Montana, analyzing the votes outstanding and those yet to be counted, felt well positioned to win.

"I think we are in really good shape," Tester said in an interview aired on CNN.

"There is a lot out there and it is still very close," said Lowrance. "We are still feeling pretty good."

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