Coleman takes recount to court

Ballot box
This ballot box holds absentee ballots marked in person at the Ramsey County elections office in St. Paul. The ballots are distributed to the correct polling places on Election Day.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

The election race between Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken veered suddenly into court.

The Coleman campaign on Saturday asked a Ramsey County District Court Judge to block the inclusion of 32 just-discovered absentee ballots in the vote total in Minneapolis. Judge Kathleen Gearin denied the request.

The request filed by Coleman's campaign said Minneapolis elections director Cynthia Reichert called Coleman's campaign office at 7:45 p.m. Friday and reported that the ballots had been found and would be counted the next morning.

"We were actually told they had been riding around in her car for several days, which raised all kinds of integrity questions," said Coleman's attorney, Fritz Knaak.

Gearin denied the campaign's request to stop the count for an investigation of the ballots' history, because the court does not have jurisdiction until the vote total is final and an official contest of the result has made, Knaak said.

Coleman has no plans to contest the results because he is ahead, he added.

Knaak also said a Minneapolis attorney reassured Coleman's campaign that no one but an elected official had access to the 32 ballots and there was no tampering.

At a rare Saturday morning court hearing, the two campaigns jousted over procedure and the short notice of the hearing.

Attorney David Lillehaug, who represented Franken, called it a "Saturday morning legal sneak attack" during an afternoon press conference at Franken's campaign headquarters in St. Paul. He said legal action was premature.

"There is a process that we've had in Minnesota that is embodied in Minnesota statutes and rules and that process needs to be followed. That process is called an election, it's called a canvas, and then there may be a recount," said Lillehaug. "And then finally after the end of that process, if somebody has a problem with that, they can start what's called an election contest."

This is likely to be just a preliminary round in what could be an extended legal battle over what is now the closest U.S. Senate race in the nation's history.

More proceedings are likely, particularly in the days following certification of the vote by the state's canvassing board on Nov. 18.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)