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Stray ballots, excessive challenges raise concern in recount's final days

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Buried in ballots
Marty Strong appears buried in ballots during election recount at the minneapolis election warehouse.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

The 171 ballots were found in Maplewood's 6th Precinct. Ramsey County Elections Director Joe Mansky said they found the ballots in a voting machine that broke down on Election Day. He said the machine was replaced but the judges forgot to feed to feed through the new ballot counter.

"The 171 ballots were already in the ballot box, so those votes did not get recorded on the tape that we were using," Mansky said.

Mansky said the ballots were always secure and were not lost. When the votes were tallied, Al Franken gained 91 votes from the batch, and Norm Coleman picked up 54 votes.

In most elections, finding 171 votes out of 2.9 million cast would be insignificant. But Norm Coleman's lead over Al Franken stood at just 215 votes before the recount began.

Finding the votes so late in the process concerns the Secretary of State's office. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann said on two occasions his office urged local elections officials to account for all of the ballots before they started their recounts. Gelbmann wants to know why the mistake happened and why it took so long to catch. He also wants Ramsey County to make sure the number of people who voted in that precinct matches up with the number of ballots cast.

"We don't suspect any type of hanky panky or any type of inappropriate behavior on anyone's part."

"We don't suspect any type of hanky panky or any type of inappropriate behavior on anyone's part," Gelbmann said. "What we're concerned about is the public perception as to why these ballots remain unaccounted for, for this long period of time."

Gelbmann is also asking all elections officials to review and sort their rejected absentee ballots to make sure none were wrongly set aside. 

The request comes just days after the State Canvassing Board expressed concern that some rejected absentee ballots were tossed out when they should not have been. The board is awaiting a legal opinion before it decides whether it can direct local elections officials to open and count any rejected ballots that were wrongly discarded. The board will meet on December 12, to discuss the issue.

The move to sort the ballots delighted Franken attorney Marc Elias. He's been calling for a review of rejected absentee ballots and an investigation into any missing ballots. He said the discovery of the ballots in Ramsey County validates his call to find and count every vote.

Video taping
An observer videotapes the recount process in Shorewood.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

"This is precisely why we have urged as strongly as we have that every election official at the county level, at the state level, everyone, look for any ballots that might be missing," Elias said.

Elections officials said it's common for some ballots to be perceived as missing when a recount occurs. They said an election judge will sometimes count a ballot twice if a voting machine gets jammed.

Fritz Knaak, Norm Coleman's campaign attorney, said he's monitoring the situation in Ramsey County. But, he accepted the explanation as long as the number of voters on Election Day squares with the number of ballots cast in that precinct.

"If they were in the machines and they were counted, that's that," Knaak said.  "We're sort of past the point in this process where we get excited about stuff like that. We've been through a few of these."

Knaak said he also wants to sit down with Franken's attorneys to discuss how to begin withdrawing some of the thousands of disputed ballots. Both campaigns have said they will retract some of the challenged ballots before the State Canvassing Board meets on December 16. Neither campaign has said how many of the disputed ballots they expect to turn back.