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Franken drops 633 challenges; more ballot problems found

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Saturday recount
Election officials are still recounting ballots in several Minnesota counties. The deadline for completion is Friday.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

For weeks, attorneys for both campaigns have been accusing the other of mounting frivolous challenges as the votes are recounted.  They have also called for their opponent to unilaterally disarm while saying they would whittle back their own campaign's challenges.  

Franken's campaign was the first to take action.  Franken attorney Marc Elias said he is withdrawing 633 challenges -- one-fifth of the challenges filed by the Franken campaign.  

Elections judges in Ramsey County
Ramsey County Election judges Rick Winters and Diane Follmer count sorted ballots on the third day of the Senate recount.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Elias said after reviewing the challenged ballots, he determined that some stood no chance of being reversed by the State Canvassing Board.  

"The fact that we are withdrawing these challenges doesn't affect, one way or another, who is going to win the election or the recount," said Elias. "The only practical impact of what we're doing today is to save the State Canvassing Board the trouble of looking through these challenged ballots."

Elias wouldn't specify how many ballots he inspected, but said it was likely that other challenges will also be withdrawn.  

The Franken campaign's action comes one week after the five-member State Canvassing Board requested that the campaigns withdraw ballots that could be determined as frivolous.  

The board is scheduled to meet on Dec. 16 to review the disputed ballots from the recount.  How the board rules on the ballots in question will likely determine the winner of the Senate race.  Before the recount began, Coleman led Franken by 215 votes.  

Marc Elias
Attorney Marc Elias with Al Franken's Senate campaign says Franken is withdrawing more than 600 ballot challenges.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Coleman's lead attorney Fritz Knaak was hoping to sit down with Franken's team to negotiate which ballots should be withdrawn. 

"My preference would be to wait until Friday, when the recount is done, before we do anything," said Knaak. "For one thing, I don't want to send any signal to our volunteers who we are telling out there that, 'If you believe there is a reason to challenge the ballot, challenge the ballot.'  I don't want to imply, by some massive undertaking on our part, to suggest that we are diminishing their effort or their judgment."

Knaak said he has inspected many of the ballots but wouldn't say how many Coleman's campaign might withdraw.  

Knaak also reversed his opinion on recently found ballots in Ramsey County.  On Tuesday, that county's election director found 171 ballots that were not counted on Election Day.  Franken's campaign picked up 37 votes as a result of the newly found ballots.  

Fritz Knaak
Fritz Knaak, lead attorney for Norm Coleman's U.S. Senate campaign, talks to reporters about the recount efforts.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Knaak initially said he was satisfied with the explanation that the ballots were left in a broken election machine and not counted on Nov. 4.  

But on Wednesday, Knaak said he was concerned about the outcome, alleging there are more ballots than voters signed in at the precinct.  Ramsey County Elections Director Joe Mansky could not be reached for a comment.  

Those heartened by Franken's gain in votes on Tuesday were unhappy to learn that he lost votes on Wednesday. In Minneapolis, elections officials discovered that one precinct was 133 votes short of Election Day totals.  The new figures mean Franken lost a net 36 votes in that precinct.  

Minneapolis Elections Director Cindy Reichert said she thinks the elections judge working in the precinct mistakenly counted some ballots twice.

"We think what happened was that the judges in the precinct took the write-in ballots that are diverted to the right side of the ballot box during the day, and ran those through the ballot counter again a second time," said Reichert. "So there are about 130 ballots that we believe were run through the ballot counter twice."

Reichert said the numbers don't match exactly, but she is confident that's what happened.  

The Franken campaign sent a letter to Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and Reichert, demanding that officials complete an intensive search before the recount is declared closed or any numbers are officially reported from the Minneapolis precinct.  

They say Reichert's explanation doesn't make sense, because their numbers now show more people signed in to vote at the precinct than there are ballots recounted there.  

Elections officials in Rock, Scott, Winona and Wright counties started counting their ballots today.  Those are the final counties to begin counting.  The Secretary of State's office has set a Friday deadline to finish the manual recount.