By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008; A04
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.
Minnesota political experts believe they are engaged in a process with little precedent; the race is closer than the 2000 presidential recount in Florida and more contentious than the 1974 Senate contest in New Hampshire between John Durkin and Louis Wyman, which required a special runoff vote.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), miffed by some of the recount proceedings last week, released a statement expressing "great concern" and fueled speculation that the Senate could ultimately help pick the winner.
"There are a lot of ways this could still go -- the canvass board, the local courts, the Senate -- but we're going to see it through to the end," said Marc Elias, Franken's lawyer. "Everything now is trending in our direction."
Said Knaak, Coleman's attorney: "It's like running a race, and you're not looking at the finish line -- you're looking at one step in front of you so you don't trip and fall."
For the past two weeks, both campaigns have focused on the garage in suburban Minneapolis, where fluorescent light bounces off an exposed concrete floor and whitewashed walls. There are 107 counting locations in Minnesota, but none compares to this one in terms of magnitude or import. Here, officials are charged with recounting almost 600,000 ballots from surrounding Hennepin County, a Democratic-leaning area where Franken pinned his hopes.
Most of the election officials are retirees hired at $9 an hour to work for about two weeks. They arrive at the garage at 8 each morning, complaining about the ice-coated entryway and the ineffective heating system before taking their seats at the plastic tables.
Participating in the recount feels like returning to elementary school, election officials say. They sometimes count with their fingers and raise their hands to signal irregular ballots. A recount manager whom they call "the hall monitor" claps her hands twice when the noise level exceeds a whisper. A room adjacent to the garage is used primarily for snacking and napping.
The judges are governed by a long list of recount rules posted at the front of the garage. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., they must sort ballots into five piles and then divide them into stacks of 25. Nobody other than an election official may touch a ballot. Each counted stack must be sealed and placed into its designated box.
"If you lose count, that means start over. If you mess up the order, start over. If you stack them wrong, start over," said Marilyn Selby, an election judge from Minneapolis. "You have to start over a lot. When it's this close, the smallest mistake could ruin the whole thing."
Two volunteers from each campaign press against the edge of each table and monitor the judges, double-checking their counts and challenging ballots that will be sent to the canvassing board for review. Sometimes, standing at the table is an exercise in boredom. Fewer than one ballot in 200 is challenged, and Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan said one concern is making sure volunteers "don't fall asleep at the table."
Other times, a table can resemble a mini-courtroom, rife with protest and contention. Some campaign volunteers carry a two-inch-thick binder labeled Recount Professional Volunteer Manual and refer to it when they spot a controversial ballot. If one side challenges a ballot, the other side usually challenges the next to catch up, election officials said. A smudge here, a stray line there, an oval that was shaded too lightly -- all challenged and set aside for more studying. Some of the disputed ballots are scanned, posted on the Internet and debated on blogs.
"Most of these challenges are going to get thrown out, because a lot of them are just superfluous," said Joe Mansky, elections manager in Ramsey County, where more than 400 ballots have been challenged. "You get people from both campaigns standing right next to each other, and the stakes are high, so they start competing against each other.
"That's probably one of the main reasons this process can sometimes be difficult: When it's this close, everybody has the feeling that the next ballot could be the decider."