Under a complex, court-ordered process, the campaigns of Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken are blocking ballots they deem to be invalid - even if a local elections official already concluded they should have counted. Affected voters can make their case directly to the Minnesota Supreme Court, but it's unlikely they'll see action before the recount wraps up. The board overseeing the recount hopes to finish its work early next week.
"There is a timing problem," Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann said Wednesday.
Added Jill Alverson, a Hennepin County elections official: "They'd have to move very fast. The timeline is going to be very tight."
The compressed schedule could have huge implications: Franken holds a tenuous 49-vote lead over the incumbent Coleman with all other ballots counted.
At a series of meetings across Minnesota, the campaigns are reviewing envelopes and registration materials for roughly 1,350 voters whose absentee ballots were disqualified on or before Election Day. Their ballots were later found to be improperly rejected and the Supreme Court ordered them counted - with a big caveat.
The court ruled that the campaigns must agree on each one before it is forwarded to the state for counting on Saturday. If one side objects, the ballot is disqualified. That is happening by the dozens.
Those voters will eventually be notified of the new rejection. State law gives them the power to petition the high court to overturn a campaign's decision. Gelbmann said the affected voters probably won't receive written notification until next week, maybe after the Canvassing Board signs off on the election totals. There has been no talk of an extension.
John Kostouros, a courts spokesman, said those voters can file their petitions for free with any justice of the Supreme Court. He wouldn't speculate about how quickly the court would act.
"They basically take each one as they come in, look at it and decide what to do with them," Kostouros said.
Voter petitions could be part of a post-election lawsuit if one is filed by the losing campaign, Gelbmann said.
Franken attorney Marc Elias said the campaign is monitoring the situation closely and will decide whether to raise concerns after it sees how the sorting process is going.
"Unless the Coleman campaign does some type of gamesmanship here, we would expect our lead would hold or grow larger," Elias said. "The Coleman campaign has become more shrill or desperate sounding in their rhetoric. We'll wait to see if that translates into behavior on the ground."
An interview request with Coleman's legal team wasn't immediately granted.
But in a letter to the Franken campaign and secretary of state's office made public Wednesday, Coleman attorney Tony Trimble attacked the entire process as sullied by "a subtle form of political guerilla warfare."
"Differing standards of acceptance and rejection has resulted, and will multiply today and Friday unless changed now," Trimble wrote. "Inconsistent ballot review and counting is the injury suffered by Minnesota and our voters. The blatant and baseless wholesale rejection of ballots for political gain is what we are seeing now, and it is not what we are supposed to be doing under the Supreme Court's order."
Meanwhile, in a windowless storage room in Minneapolis, lawyers for the two campaigns sat face to face as Hennepin County elections workers sorted through 329 sealed absentee ballots. It's by far the largest pile of uncounted ballots for any county.
Some they mutually agreed to be forwarded for counting. But for others, one side balked.
The local officials let them inspect - but not touch - the envelopes and other materials related to the voters. For each objection, the campaign attorney had to sign a form stating their reason. The Supreme Court has threatened sanctions for the campaigns and their lawyers if they act in bad faith.
In Minneapolis, the process was tedious and the mood was businesslike, though light banter slipped in.
At one point Franken lawyer David Lillehaug and Coleman lawyer Bill McGinley amicably alternated objections over ballots with signature problems.
"Do you want to take it?" Lillehaug asked McGinley.
"Sure," the Coleman attorney replied. "We'll object."
Avery York, 52, of Bloomington, was astonished to learn from a reporter on Wednesday that his ballot had been rejected - originally by election officials, and then by Coleman's representative. The Coleman campaign struck the ballot on the grounds that there was no signature on the application.
"It never even dawned on me it might have been rejected," said York, who said he was voting absentee for the first time because he was afraid he wouldn't be done at work in time to vote on Election Day. He said he voted for Franken.
Asked whether he would take any action to have his vote counted, York said he would study what it entailed. His "major race" was the presidential race, not the Senate.
"I'm not going to take time away from work," he said.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)