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Court orders rejected absentees into Senate count

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Boxes of absentee ballots
Boxes of absentee ballots are stacked at the Ramsey County Elections Office. The state Supreme Court has ordered that wrongly rejected absentee ballots be counted in the U.S. Senate election total.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that the estimated 1,600 wrongly rejected absentee ballots must be counted in the U.S. Senate recount, but only after the Secretary of State, local elections officials and the Coleman and Franken campaigns agree on a process to identify them. 

Democrat Al Franken's campaign had argued that the ballots should be included in the recount. Imcumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman's campaign went to the court to stop the count until clear standards could be established. 

The decision appears to have the potential to prolong the recount. It gives the Coleman campaign what it wanted in setting a process for identifying wrongly rejected ballots, but it gives the Franken camp access to another source of votes that could overturn the slight lead Coleman had after the first count. 

The decision written by Justice Helen Meyer says county canvassing boards don't have the authority under law to count the ballots on their own, but that if local officials and the parties agree there was an error the votes should be counted.

Any absnetee ballot envelopes shall be opened, the ballot shall be counted and its vote for U.S. Senator added to the total votes cast for that office in precinct. 

The court also said it understood the extraordinary efforts local elections officials have already done, but they said there's a compelling need to move toward a conclusion that needs a deadline. That deadline says all amended reports and notices of no amendments need to go to the state canvassing board no later than 4:00 p.m. on December 31.

Justice Alan Page wrote in dissent that he thought the majority's ruling was too narrow and contrived. He said the Minnesota citizens who cast their votes for Coleman and Franken will be disenfranchised.

Justice Paul Anderson agreed that the local officials should make every effort to agree on the absentee ballots that were rejected in error, but would not stop the county canvassing boards from including them in recount now underway.

The court issued a ruling with no opinion attached, because time is of the essence in election cases. It said it would detail its reasons later. 

Both Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and Justice G. Barry Anderson recused themselves from the case. Both are members of the state's election canvassing board.