Judge grants Franken absentee ballot access

Al Franken's  lead attorney, Marc Elias
Al Franken's lead attorney Marc Elias.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

DFLer Al Franken may be trailing in the vote count in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race, but he scored a victory in court this afternoon.

Ramsey County District Court Judge Dale Lindman has ordered the release of the names and addresses of some absentee voters in St. Paul and its suburbs.

Lindman ordered the county's election workers to produce the data by the end of the business day.

Fritz Knaak, Coleman's lead attorney
Fritz Knaak, Norm Coleman's lead attorney.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"With each passing hour, the Franken campaign is irreparably harmed in its efforts to ensure that each valid vote is properly counted and to prepare for the procedures that will decide this election," Lindman wrote in his seven-page order.

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The Franken campaign sought the names to make an argument before the State Canvassing Board that at least some rejected absentee ballots ought to be included in the statewide recount now underway.

When the recount began, Franken trailed incumbent Republican Norm Coleman by just 215 votes out of nearly 3 million cast in this month's election.

Lindman issued the order shortly after hearing nearly an hour of arguments Wednesday morning from lawyers for Franken, Coleman and Ramsey County elections officials. Coleman's campaign wanted the data kept under wraps.

Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky said his office will comply with the order. But he said he had to confer with the county attorney before deciding how. The county attorney's office said there would be no appeal.

"With each passing hour, the Franken campaign is irreparably harmed in its efforts to ensure that each valid vote is properly counted."

This year more than 30,000 absentee ballots were cast in Ramsey County, but he didn't have a number for how many were rejected.

During the hearing, Judge Lindman said he was concerned about voter privacy.

"But it's also the transparency of the process" that is at issue, he said. He said he weighed the privacy rights of voters who want to keep their vote secret against those who don't want to be disenfranchised.

Franken attorney David Lillehaug said information supplied by other counties has revealed cases where voters felt their absentee ballots were erroneously disregarded.

"It is clear to us that mistakes have been made," Lillehaug told the judge.

An attorney for the Coleman campaign, Fritz Knaak, argued against the release. After the hearing, Knaak sounded resigned to the ruling going Franken's way and both sides getting the data.

"We're not interested in receiving it. We're probably are going to get it, whether we want it or not. We don't intend to use it. We're not about the business of pounding on doors," Knaak said before jabbing at the Franken campaign's motives.

"The reality is if they get the names and addresses that they want, they're going to pound on people's doors and ask 'How did you vote?'"

Fourteen Minnesota counties have turned over the information already, and more are likely to follow after the ruling in Ramsey County.

Franken's attorneys said the ruling strengthens their case in other counties and with the canvassing board.

"This was not a lawsuit over votes," lead attorney Marc Elias said. "It was not to put votes in or take votes out of the count. Rather, it was a lawsuit to get access to data."

Elias said the campaign will ask other counties if the ruling changes their minds.

The State Canvassing Board yesterday opted not to weigh in on the rejected absentee ballot issue. The matter could be decided in court after the ongoing recount is finished.