Day Three: Gelbmann’s grilling by hotshot Friedberg ends after four hours in Senate trial
After taking a folksy turn Tuesday with testimony from frustrated voters, Norm Coleman’s legal team began to deliver on the tedium it promised in the trial sparked by Coleman’s election-contest lawsuit. The folksy quotient remained high, however, as storied trial attorney Joe Friedberg charmingly dragged his mild but unrelenting grilling of Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann — whom some wags have likened to the sheriff’s duck-painting husband in the movie “Fargo” — into a fourth hour this morning. It turned adversarial only by the end of Friedberg’s questions at 11:25 a.m.
Friedberg chivalrously escorted Gelbmann through a seemingly interminable series of absentee ballots that were rejected for various reasons in the Nov. 4 election pitting the incumbent Republican Sen. Coleman against Democratic challenger Al Franken. Gelbmann, whom the secretary of state’s office offered up as a witness at the Coleman camp’s request, nimbly recollected individual ballots from around the state like old pals. (Both sides cited his motto, “Every ballot has a story,” to buttress their arguments before reporters after court recessed Tuesday.)
The questioning appeared to take a dramatic turn when Friedberg said, “Let’s go there,” apparently intending to launch a discussion of the controversial Minnesota Supreme Court order that allowed both campaigns to prevent counting of individual ballots that local officials had determined, on review, they had wrongly rejected. But an objection from the Franken side sent Friedberg back to his stack of ballots, though not before getting Gelbmann to agree that the Supreme Court’s order disenfranchised voters.
The dry but congenial back-and-forth got a bit personal when Gelbmann testified that his mother’s Parkinson’s disease made it hard for her to sign her name. That echoed a much more emotional statement by Gelbmann’s boss, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who told a Minnesota Senate committee earlier this month that his own grandmother’s tremors prevented her from filling in ovals on ballots.
Gelbmann seemed to be getting more testy — or perhaps simply more tired — as the morning dragged on, addressing Friedberg as “sir” with an edge to his voice that had thus far been mostly absent. Friedberg’s questioning by the end became more pointed as he angled for evidence that Minnesota didn’t offer voters across the state equal protection as they sought to exercise their franchise to vote.
At 11:25 a.m., Franken attorney David Lillehaug began his cross-examination of Gelbmann.
Day Two: Voters on the witness stand
Norm Coleman’s legal team called a half-dozen voters to the witness stand on the second day of the Minnesota trial that may decide who gains the seat Coleman formerly held in the U.S. Senate.
The voters’ testimony occupied the first part of the afternoon in court Tuesday after a morning in which the action was entirely behind the scenes, as three election contest trial judges met in chambers with attorneys from the Coleman and Al Franken campaigns. And their personal tales of electoral woe went a ways toward refreshing the palate after a disastrous Monday in which the judges rejected Coleman’s photocopied evidence.
Three elderly men, two younger men and one woman told three judges that their votes in the Nov. 4, 2008, election didn’t count because local officials determined that absentee ballot and registration signatures didn’t match. All said the Republican Party had contacted them with news that their votes hadn’t been counted, though not all had confirmed that information with officials.
Eugene Markman of Waite Park, Minn., said he voted by absentee ballot so that he could spend 16 hours as chief election judge at a precinct in his former home town of St. Cloud. Coleman attorney Jim Langdon asked Markman to read aloud the reason (signature mismatch) another local official noted for rejecting his ballot.
“Whoever wrote this don’t know how to write either,” Markman said with disgust.
Douglas Thompson told the judges his signatures didn’t match because his girlfriend was responsible for one of them.
Coleman attorney Ben Ginsburg, a veteran of Bush v. Gore presidential recount case in 2000, told reporters at the end of the day that putting voters on the stand was the court’s idea. “The judges suggested to counsel that it would be very helpful to hear from some real people in real situations,” he said.
Ginsburg also cited the day’s last witness called by Coleman’s side, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann, who had testified that “matching of signatures is the one area where there is a level of discretion allowed by the local officials.” Such variation by locality, Ginsburg insisted, “is a perfect illustration of what we need to correct in this process.” To sum up the problem, Ginsburg again pointed to another statement by Gelbmann: “Every ballot has its own story.”
But that same phrase was also a keynote in Franken attorney Marc Elias’ arguments presented to the press after court adjourned for the day. In Elias’ telling, Gelbmann’s saying means that decisions made by local officials in the original canvass and again in the statewide recount should stand: They have already elicited each ballot’s story.
Elias expressed one frustration with a metaphor (trying “to chase this rabbit around a hole”) that another Franken attorney, Kevin Hamilton, had called “a constant game of shuffling the deck” in a strenuous objection before the court. The problem they allege: Coleman’s team continuously changes the so-called “universe” of rejected ballots they want the three judges to review. The day’s presiding judge on the panel, Denise Reilly of Hennepin County District Court, said the court would take the objection under advisement.
But such procedural moves weren’t what Coleman, who (unlike Franken) was again present for the trial today, wanted to talk to reporters about afterward. “Today we saw the human side of this,” he said. “It’s heartwarming to be here and to hear Minnesotans come forward and be so passionate about having their votes counted.”
That passion was on display with Coleman’s first witness, Gerald W. Anderson of St. Paul, who said he is blind and cast his first vote for Eisenhower in 1952. As for the vote Republicans told him was rejected, he protested loudly: “I want it back! I’m entitled to my vote!”