Holidays, Court Ruling Will Further Extend Minn. Senate Recount

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 2008

With the latest projections showing incumbent Norm Coleman (R) clinging to a lead of a handful of votes, Minnesota's U.S. Senate race headed deeper into political limbo yesterday, raising the possibility that the contest could still be undecided when the rest of the class of 2008 is sworn in Jan. 6.

Election officials said they are unlikely to finish the recount in the race between Coleman and Democrat Al Franken before Dec. 30, and the state's Supreme Court issued a verdict mandating the inclusion of perhaps more than 1,000 absentee ballots that had been rejected, making it appear likely that the process could take even longer than envisioned.

As Coleman challenged dozens of additional ballots yesterday, Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said the state board conducting the recount could not meet its goal of ruling on the contested ballots today.

"The only real concern is accuracy and transparency," he said in a telephone interview during a lunch break in the hand recount. "Our job is to make sure we are absolutely certain how Minnesotans voted."

Once the recount is finished, state officials could declare a winner, with some estimates predicting a single-digit margin out of more than 2.9 million votes cast. The loser would then have seven days to contest the outcome.

But the court's decision could add even more time to the recount. It represented a partial legal victory for Franken, who has sought to include the rejected votes because his campaign had pushed early voting by absentee ballot. The candidates and officials must now sort through more than 12,000 rejected absentee ballots to determine which ones were wrongly refused. Officials estimate that more than 1,000 such ballots were improperly rejected.

Even after those votes are added to the count, the candidates may then challenge them before the canvassing board.

Democrats have privately raised the possibility of temporarily leaving Minnesota's seat vacant, something that has not occurred since 1974, when the Senate was unable to declare a victor and New Hampshire held a repeat election in 1975.

The Minnesota recount comes amid the Illinois corruption scandal that is delaying the Senate replacement of President-elect Barack Obama, creating the possibility that a very busy legislative season could begin with two vacancies.

Because of the uncertainty in Illinois and Minnesota, the Senate has delayed formally reconstituting its committee structure. Democrats could end up holding 57, 58 or 59 seats, and the majority ratio on committees will shift accordingly. Until those panels are in place, it is difficult to hold hearings and move legislation that Obama made the centerpiece of his campaign.

A Senate investigation of the Minnesota race is a distinct possibility, as has occurred in previous disputed campaigns. But the Rules and Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction in such cases, will be chaired by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this year and oversaw more than $5 million in advertising on Franken's behalf. Schumer has declined to comment on whether he will recuse himself if an investigation is held.

Senate leaders are hesitant to suggest how they will handle the matter next month if the race is still in question but have subtly signaled their leanings. "The only thing Senator Reid is concerned about is making sure every vote is counted," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

"I would hope that Washington partisans would refrain from injecting themselves into what is, by design, a nonpartisan process," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement late last month.

Coleman held a 215-vote lead when the first round of counting ended in mid-November, but a mandatory recount began because the margin was so narrow.

The senator saw his lead slip below 200 votes when the first phase of the recount ended two weeks ago. But the canvassing board still had to examine more than 1,500 ballots that the campaigns had challenged.

Since Tuesday, the board has met each morning to try to determine the intent of the voter on each ballot. The first two days were dedicated to deciding the fate mostly of ballots challenged by Franken's campaign, most of which were initially called for Coleman.

The majority of those challenges were dismissed, meaning more votes were added to Coleman's count, so his margin appeared to double. Yesterday, the board sorted through more than half of the ballots challenged by the Coleman campaign, so after those challenges were dismissed, a large number of votes fell into the Franken column.

Last night, the Minneapolis Star Tribune declared that its count had Coleman leading by five votes.

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