In a Cold Garage, Minnesota's Senate Recount Drags On

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008

MINNEAPOLIS -- One of the closest elections in the history of the United States Senate is now playing out inside a storage garage hidden on the outskirts of downtown. Dozens of election officials wearing winter jackets sit in teams of two at plastic folding tables. Each team counts about 500 ballots an hour, eight hours a day, for days on end. They take breaks to chug coffee and tend to their paper cuts.

Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken expected their race to end more than a month ago, but it remains very much undecided. Minnesota has recounted about 95 percent of the 2.9 million ballots by hand -- a painstaking process that it hopes to finish today -- and still there is no clear front-runner or reliable official count.

Franken's campaign announced that he had jumped ahead for the first time Wednesday, by 22 votes. Spokesmen for Coleman said that the senator continues to lead by about 300 votes and that anything else is "just playing with numbers."

After a contentious campaign, the two candidates mainly have kept quiet and avoided public appearances during the recount, but nearly everyone else in Minnesota seems to be involved. Thousands of campaign volunteers and 400 lawyers monitor the election officials as they count the ballots. Local courts have settled two recount-related lawsuits and expect more. A canvassing board holds hearings to determine the fate of uncounted absentee forms. Police investigate claims of missing, mishandled and stolen ballots.

It's been a firsthand lesson in the difficulty of executing democracy, and the mayhem might have inspired a great parody for Franken during his career as a comedian. But this recount also has riveted Minnesota because the stakes remain improbably high. A Franken win would give the Democrats 59 seats in the Senate, setting them up for another run at a filibuster-proof 60 in 2010. Coleman lost an embarrassing gubernatorial race to former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura a decade ago, and another loss to an inexperienced celebrity-turned-politician would embarrass Republicans in an already miserable year.

Both candidates have issued the same edict to their campaigns: This election isn't over until every ballot is sorted and scrutinized -- which is why nobody expects a winner anytime soon.

"The whole thing has been unique," said Fritz Knaak, the lead lawyer for Coleman's campaign. "I've tried significant cases, and I've been in the limelight, but I've never seen anything like this. To me it feels like a trial in terms of everybody's tension level, but multiplied by two."

Franken and Coleman traded a series of negative advertisements during their long and nasty campaign, and that combativeness has carried over into the recount. Coleman, who finished ahead by 215 votes on election night, filed a motion to prevent a recount, even though state law requires one in elections decided by less than one-half percent. Franken's campaign responded by accusing Coleman of trying to cheat Minnesota voters and impede democracy.

For the past several weeks, lawyers representing the candidates have held daily dueling news conferences at the campaigns' headquarters, which are separated by less than a mile in suburban St. Paul. Each campaign makes a habit of disparaging the opponent and announcing its own daily vote totals -- numbers that amount to little more than guesswork.

Lawyers and volunteers for the campaigns have challenged more than 6,000 ballots during the recount, and those cannot be accurately included in any total. The Coleman daily count assumes all challenges will be upheld; the Franken count assumes only some will. A canvassing board will start examining challenged ballots -- and hopefully establish some sort of consensus -- on Dec. 16.

Neither campaign expects the recount to end there. In the weeks since the election, hundreds of political volunteers have acted as detectives, searching precincts and cars for misplaced ballots and photographing the evidence. On Tuesday, officials near St. Paul found 171 ballots that were left uncounted after a voting machine jammed Nov. 4. Franken gained 37 votes from that new pile, prompting Coleman's campaign to send a team of investigators to the site and call the discovery "suspicious." Yesterday, voting officials admitted that an additional 131 ballots from Minneapolis had been placed in an envelope and lost.

Franken's campaign also says that as many as 1,000 absentee ballots were improperly excluded from the original voting totals. Minnesota's secretary of state has asked election officials to look into that charge later this month.

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