U.S. Senate recount: The battle over rejected absentee ballots


What will happen to absentee ballots that were rejected as invalid by local election officials? That’s the question currently roiling the U.S. Senate contest between Norm Coleman and Al Franken as a state-mandated manual recount gets underway this week.

The Franken campaign has sought information on rejected absentee ballots from all 87 of Minnesota’s counties. But some jurisdictions, including Ramsey and Hennepin counties, have refused to provide the data, arguing that it is private. Last Thursday the Franken campaign filed a lawsuit in Ramsey County District Court seeking to force the county to release the information. A hearing on the case is slated for Wednesday morning.

In the meantime, a statewide canvassing board, set up to oversee the recount process, is expected to consider the issue when it meets tomorrow. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who is part of the five-member panel, initially told reporters that the canvassing board would not weigh in on the issue of rejected absentee ballots, but subsequently reversed that decision.

In a brief submitted to the canvassing board today, the Franken campaign highlighted four instances where it believes absentee ballots were improperly rejected. For example, James Langland, a doctor in Pennington County, attempted to vote absentee by visiting the local election office to fill out his ballot. The ballot, however, was subsequently rejected because it lacked a proper witness signature. “Dr. Langland did everything correctly,” said Mark Elias, the lead recount attorney for the Franken campaign at a press conference today. “He actually went to the recorder’s office and asked them to witness the signature. And due surely to human error and nothing more, it resulted in it being rejected.”

It’s uncertain how many such ballots are at stake, but Hennepin County alone had 461 absentee votes invalidated. “That’s part of the problem; we are still looking for data,” said Andy Barr, Franken’s communications director. “We want to know how many absentee ballots we’re talking about and why they were rejected.”

The recount is slated to get under way on Wednesday. Over the next two weeks local election officials are expected to manually examine all 2.9 million ballots cast to determine which candidate an individual voter intended to support. Authorized representatives of the Coleman and Franken campaigns will be allowed to challenge any decision that they deem questionable. Those challenged ballots will then ultimately be ruled on by the statewide canvassing board.

Currently, Coleman holds a minuscule 206-vote lead, but that margin has already shrunk from more than 700 votes immediately after Election Day as counties have certified results and corrected errors. The shrinking gap has led the Coleman campaign to repeatedly question the integrity of the vote-counting process. Last week, for instance, campaign manager Cullen Sheehan raised doubts about the secretary of state’s ability to oversee an impartial process.

During today’s press conference, Barr noted that the state’s top Republican elected official, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, has recently acknowledged that there’s been no evidence of electoral shenanigans presented. “That begs the question,” Barr said. “If there is no actual evidence of wrongdoing or fraud in the process, as the Coleman campaign’s top surrogate says, how many more baseless charges and innuendos will we have to tolerate from the Coleman campaign? Our position, meanwhile, remains the same: count all the votes fairly.”