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Key panel named in Minn. Senate recount

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Mark Ritchie announces cavassing board
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie announced on Wednesday the canvassing board that will determine whether Republican Norm Coleman or Democrat Al Franken won Minnesota's Senate race.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

We now know who will have the final say on disputed ballots in the upcoming Senate recount. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie announced Wednesday two Minnesota Supreme Court justices and two Ramsey County judges will join him on the State Canvassing Board, the body that will officially name the winner of the election. 

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie announced Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and Justice G. Barry Anderson will join him on the canvassing board. Ramsey County District Court Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin and Assistant Chief Judge Edward Cleary are the other two members. 

Chief justice
Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Eric Magnuson speaks to the Minnesota Bar Association Convention in Duluth Tuesday.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Ritchie said the five will meet next Tuesday to certify the election. At that point, the board will order the recount in Minnesota's Senate race. He said the recount will begin the following day and will take place in about 120 different sites across the state. At each site, election officials will go through every ballot to determine a voter's intent and place each ballot in a pile. 

"You got the Coleman pile, you got the Franken pile and you got 'all others,'" Ritchie said. "The 'all other' piles are the ones where you can't tell the intent or they've invalidated themselves by marking."

Ritchie said the recount will be done out in the open and he also said the Franken and Coleman campaigns will have representatives watching the process closely. He said they'll have the option of challenging any decision made by the election official. 

Challenged ballots will be placed in a fourth pile and will eventually make their way to the State Canvassing Board. The five-member board will determine whether each challenged ballot should be included or excluded from the count. 

When asked if the board could be presented with thousands of ballots, Ritchie said: "Could be, could be and the job of the canvassing board is to look at all of those that are challenged."

The Minnesota Supreme Court Justices
(Former) Chief Justice Russell A. Anderson, Justice Alan C. Page, Justice Paul H. Anderson, Justice Helen M. Meyer, Justice G. Barry Anderson, Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, Justice Christopher J. Dietzen
Courtesy of The Minnesota Judicial Branch

Ritchie is hoping that the recount can be finished and the results submitted to his office by December 5. He wants the State Canvassing Board to start reviewing the challenged ballots on December 16. Ritchie is hoping that the process runs smoothly but the Coleman and Franken campaigns are raising concerns about those who will sit on the board.

Norm Coleman's campaign continues to question whether Ritchie, a Democrat, can be an unbiased official in the recount. In a news release, Coleman's campaign manager said Ritchie should apologize for saying Coleman's campaign intends to win at any price. Coleman's lead attorney, Fritz Knaak, said he hopes the process is fair.

"It's in our interest to see that this recount be done professionally and fairly," Knaak said. "Of course, Secretary Ritchie understands that he comes from a certain partisan background that will cause additional scrutiny and I'm sure he's aware of that. Our confidence is in the same professional staff that he has confidence in."

When asked if he's confident in Ritchie's staff but not in Ritchie, Knaak said you can characterize it that way. He added that he had confidence in the judges now sitting on the board.

Franken's campaign said Coleman campaign officials should stop complaining about Ritchie. Franken spokesman Andy Barr noted that Governor Pawlenty -- a Republican -- appointed Justices Magnuson and Anderson to the bench. 

"Certainly Chief Justice Magnuson was Pawlenty's law partner," Barr said. "Justice Anderson spent a decade representing the Minnesota Republican Party. But look, there are clear laws with how this recount should proceed. We're going to hope that even though they've got these partisan affiliations, that these two justices are capable of interpreting those laws correctly and ruling with fairness on matters related to the recount."

Former Governor Jesse Ventura appointed Ramsey County Judge Edward Cleary to the bench, while Kathleen Gearin was elected to her post. For his part, Ritchie said he and the other members of the canvassing board will take their jobs seriously. 

"When a Supreme Court Justice is appointed by whomever, when they put on the robe, they stop being of a political party and they start being servants of the people of Minnesota," Ritchie said. "I feel the same way when I took the oath of office and walked through the door, I became a servant of the people of Minnesota."

Even though the State Canvassing Board could determine whether Coleman or Franken is the winner in the Senate race, its choice may not be the last word. Anyone unhappy with the result could contest the election in court.