Franken increases lead over Coleman to 225 votes

Canvassing Board
The Minnesota State Canvassing Board will meet Monday and is expected to finalize the results of the tally.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Democratic Senate challenger Al Franken added 176 votes to his lead in one of the tightest races in U.S. history today.

A count of more than 950 previously unopened absentee ballots went heavily in his favor as the state's official recount finally approached a finish.

"We are confident that he will win… by what is not a large margin, but what is a comfortable margin," said Franken's lead attorney, Marc Elias. "But 225 is still a close election."

Opening ballots
A three person team unseals absentee ballots in the U.S. Senate race
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

The tally leaves only the formal declaration of the vote totals left to complete. The five-person state canvassing board is set to meet Monday to review the findings and direct Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to certify the results.

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It's unlikely, though, that the board's action will finish the race.

Fritz Knaak, an attorney for Republican Norm Coleman, said that it is "virtually certain" that the result is heading for a court challenge.

Another Coleman attorney, Matt Haapoja, was actually drafting what appeared to be the paperwork for a court challenge -- and another potential recount -- as he sat in the State Office Building waiting for state elections officials to finish processing the final ballots on Saturday.

"We are prepared to go forward and take whatever legal action is necessary to remedy this artificial lead," Knaak said at a press conference after the recount results were announced.

That leaves the finish of last November's election still in limbo.

By law, Minnesota can't certify a winner until seven days after the state canvassing board accepts the official election results. Virtually anyone in the state can file a lawsuit in those seven days, and a presumptive winner can't get an official election certificate while an election contest is pending in court.

The court contest could focus on a few disputes still remaining, like allegations of double counted ballots in Minneapolis, and remaining wrongly rejected ballots dismissed by the campaigns. It could also start a second statewide recount.

In the meantime, Democrats and Republicans may continue to tussle in Washington over what to do in the interim.

In 1997, Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, was seated "provisionally" in a Republican-controlled Senate while her election was under contest.

Minnesota's Democratic and now-sole senator, Amy Klobuchar, has suggested that Franken might be accorded a similar privilege. (Coleman's first term, won in 2002, expired at noon Saturday, during the recount.)

But contrary to Klobuchar's assertions, Texas Senator John Cornyn told reporters on Friday that his caucus would block Franken from joining the body until all of Coleman's legal appeals are exhausted.

The controversial appointment of Roland Burris in Illinois to succeed Barack Obama in the Senate may also play a role.

State officials have objected to Gov. Rod Blagojevich's alleged improprieties in replacing Obama, and Republicans in Washington contend that Senate Democrats can't reject Burris and accept Franken when there are unresolved legal issues in both states