Senate election outcome may rest with challenged ballots

Head Elections Judge Diane Follmer
Head Elections Judge Diane Follmer from St. Paul showed off what she called "the election recount manicure," which includes two rubber finger cots to aid in counting all of the ballots. Follmer was working at the Ramsey County Recount in St. Paul, MN November 20, 2008.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

After two days of counting, it's clear that the outcome of the election may not be resolved until the State Canvassing Board decides the challenged ballots.

The latest figures from the Secretary of State's office show between them the two campaigns challenged 734 ballots. And, since the most recent numbers show both Franken and Coleman losing votes as the number of challenges grows, the State Canvassing Board will likely determine the outcome of the election.

Boxes of finished ballots are loaded for storage
Joe Mansky, Ramsey County Elections Director, spoke with an elections official as finished ballots were loaded for storage in St. Paul, MN November 20, 2008.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

"I think everyone has always assumed this," said Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

Ritchie chairs the five-member State Canvassing Board that includes two Minnesota Supreme Court justices and two judges from Ramsey County. After analyzing the data from the first two days of the recount, Ritchie estimated that the board could be faced with determining the intent of about 1,500 ballots.

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"The kind of unofficial and completely incomplete numbers will indicate that it's in the challenged ballots where the final numbers will start to get determined," he said.

The canvassing board is scheduled to start examining those ballots on December 16. In the meantime, local elections officials continue the painstaking work of hand counting the 2.9 million ballots cast. As elections officials sort the ballots, representatives from both campaigns watch. Whenever a campaign representative sees a questionable ballot, he flags it and challenges it.

In Ramsey County, Elections Director Joe Mansky went through a pile of Norm Coleman ballots that were challenged by Franken's team. On the first day of the recount, one challenge was filed in Ramsey County. On day two, there were nine more challenges. Mansky was professional as he dealt with the challenges but was clearly ruffled.

Counting ballots in Ramsey County
Sherri Nesseth, 42, of St. Paul, Elections Sorter for the Recount, compared original ballots to duplicates for accuracy as representatives from both the Coleman and Franken campaigns observed. St. Paul, MN November 20, 2008.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

At some points, elections officials have said the challenges look like an arms race, with the campaign representative challenging ballots just to keep up with their opponent. In other cases, it looks like a poker game with both campaigns challenging and withdrawing challenges if the other follows suit. Manksy said his impression is that the campaigns instructed volunteers not to leave anything to chance.

"A lot of the folks are new to this activity, and I'm sure both of the campaign headquarters have instructed them if they have any question about a ballot, it's better to challenge them than not," Mansky said. "But hopefully, we can stay away from anything that either becomes arbitrary, automatic or frivolous."

The Secretary of State's numbers show that the largest number of challenges are in Hennepin County with 188, while St. Louis County was second with 91. At dueling news conferences on Thursday afternoon, officials with both campaigns accused the other of filing unnecessary challenges. They tried to convince the public that they're the frontrunner by saying the results are moving in their favor.

"I do have to say that we are feeling confident and in Al's words 'cautiously optimistic' in the direction that things are headed in," said Andy Barr, spokesman for Al Franken. Barr's statement was made before the release of the day two recount results.

But Coleman's Attorney, Fritz Knaak, said the Coleman campaign is doing better in DFL strongholds.

A challenged ballot in Ramsey County
An example of a challenged ballot at the Ramsey County recount location in St. Paul, MN November 20, 2008.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

"We're ahead of where we expected to be at this point given what we heard in St. Louis and what's been going on in Hennepin County," Knaak said.

Secretary of State Ritchie said the pace of the recount is also going faster than he expected. He said he's more confident that the counties will meet his deadline of finishing the counting by December 5.