Absentees push Franken's Senate lead to 312

By BRIAN BAKST
The Associated Press
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Democrat Al Franken's lead in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race widened Tuesday to 312 votes after previously rejected absentee ballots were added to the counting.

Franken did better than Republican Norm Coleman by a nearly 2-to-1 margin as the ballots were opened and counted as part of a lawsuit brought by Coleman over the statewide recount. A three-judge panel ruled earlier that 351 ballots had been improperly rejected during the election and should be restored.

Franken led by 225 votes going into Tuesday's count of those ballots.

The judges have yet to settle some claims in Coleman's lawsuit, but the absentees were the key issue that could have given Coleman enough votes to overtake Franken.

Outside the courtroom, Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg minimized the new margin and said he would appeal to the state Supreme Court.

"What happened today in the sphere of this election is really inconsequential," he said. "There's a much larger universe of ballots that should be opened."

Franken attorney Marc Elias said he doubted an appeal would change the result.

"The problem that former Sen. Coleman has is he lost fair and square," Elias said. "He lost because more people voted for Al Franken than voted for Norm Coleman. No amount of lawyering or sophisticated legal arguments is going to change that."

Coleman initially sought to have more than 4,800 absentee ballots added to the race. The judges admitted far fewer, saying they had carefully reviewed each ballot to make sure voters had complied with state and federal law.

The pending issues in Coleman's suit include a request to invalidate votes from a Minneapolis precinct where ballots were lost between Election Day and the recount. A state board previously decided to rely on the machine count for the precinct.

Coleman also claimed poll workers made mistakes when making duplicate copies of damaged ballots. The error could have allowed both versions in the recount.

Combined, the matters could mean a swing of 100 votes.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat, welcomed an appeal. He said an election certificate should be issued once the justices rule.

The certificate will come from Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office. Pawlenty has said he'll await direction from the courts before granting the certificate.

Tuesday's counting of ballots in open court represented the first new votes added to the race since the recount ended in early January.

Since Nov. 4, Coleman has surrendered more than 1,000 net votes to Franken _ first as local officials reconciled their Election Night tabulations, then during the exhaustive hand recount where he lost the lead and now through his court case.


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