Recount is done, except for one precinct

Looking for ballots
Assistant Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann moves boxes at the Minneapolis elections warehouse Friday, as he and city officials search for a packet of 133 missing ballots. The ballots weren't found, and the search will resume Monday in other locations.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

It's the largest recount in the state's history. For two and a half weeks, elections workers in all 87 counties examined each and every one of the 2.9 million ballots to determine whether Republican Norm Coleman or Democrat Al Franken won the U.S. Senate election.

"Counting three million ballots under the glare of a thousand klieg lights. That's the hardest part, and it's over," said Secretary of State Mark Ritchie at an afternoon news conference.

Mark Ritchie addresses the press
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said Friday the largest recount in Minnesota history is over, except for one precinct in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

If you factor in the Election Day results from the precinct that hasn't been recounted, Coleman has a 192-vote lead over Franken. But it's still too early to declare a winner, because there are about 5,300 ballots in dispute.

Ritchie hopes both campaigns will continue withdrawing many of those challenges before the State Canvassing board meets to rule on the ballots on Dec. 16.

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The five-member board, which includes Ritchie, two Minnesota Supreme Court justices and two Ramsey County judges, will determine the winner after examining those ballots.

"I only want to ask these four other persons, the two justices and judges, to certify a number that is absolutely as accurate as we can get," said Ritchie.

Ritchie says that quest for accuracy has prompted him to leave the recount open in that one Minneapolis precinct. It's there that elections officials are searching for an envelope that contains 133 ballots.

Minneapolis elections boss
Cindy Reichert, head of the elections for the city of Minneapolis, looks through a stack of ballots at the city's elections warehouse Friday. She and other officials searched the building for several hours, looking for a packet of 133 missing ballots, but they didn't find them.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

Throughout the morning, elections officials were scouring the massive elections warehouse in Minneapolis looking for the envelope.

On Wednesday, the ballot count in the Dinkytown precinct came up short. Minneapolis Elections Director Cindy Reichert initially thought some ballots were run through the voting machine twice. But after examining her records, she realized the votes were missing.

"We moved all of the equipment, we looked on all of the shelving, we looked in supply boxes, we looked in the precinct supplies that came back from this particular precinct, we looked through the ballot envelopes, we looked between the voting booth stacks. We basically looked under everything that is conceivable where they can be," said Reichert.

After searching for more than five hours, Reichert became convinced the ballots are not in the warehouse. She said she hasn't decided what to do next, and officials will discuss their options on Monday.

While officials didn't find the 133 ballots in question, the search did turn up what appears to be fewer than 20 other previously uncounted overseas military ballots from another precinct. The ballots were in a plastic bag in the warehouse, not in an official ballot envelope.

Elections warehouse
Elections officials from the state and the city of Minneapolis move ballot machines and boxes in the city elections warehouse, as they search for a packet of 133 missing ballots. They didn't find the ballots in the building.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

Reichert says "it's clear the ballots were mishandled," and her office will investigate further before deciding how to handle them.

Secretary of State Ritchie said it isn't clear what the canvassing board will do if the 133 ballots aren't found. He said one option is to take the machine totals from election night.

Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak said he's troubled that the recount is being left open.

"We're expressing our concern with the Secretary of State about the kinds of issues that leaving something open like that could cause to occur," said Knaak. "In other words, the possibility of insecurity, the possibility of the fact that it's potentially an opportunity for fraud, those kinds of things. That hasn't happened. I'm not saying that's happened, but that's the reason you have an end to the count."

Franken's attorney Marc Elias said he's pleased that elections officials will search for every vote. He's also searching for more votes among the rejected absentee ballots.

Under the Secretary of State's direction, local elections officials will sort all of the rejected absentee ballots, to determine if any were rejected when they shouldn't have been. The Canvassing Board expressed concern at its last meeting that some absentee ballots were wrongly set aside.

The board is waiting for a legal opinion to see whether it can direct local elections officials to open the ballots in question. It will meet next Friday to discuss their options.

In the meantime, Secretary Ritchie has instructed elections officials to not open the ballots. But Elias, with the Franken campaign, says he thinks that's what they should do.

"Because it seemed to be agreed among everyone on the Canvassing Board that whether the Canvassing Board had jurisdiction, the counties clearly have jurisdiction. So now we've brought it to their attention and have asked them to do so," said Elias.

It isn't clear what county officials will do. Secretary Ritchie said Houston County already sorted its ballots. An official there says out of 16 absentee ballots, two appear to have been improperly rejected.

Ritchie said officials in 60 other counties will start sorting next week.