Coleman, Franken spar over absentees

Norm Coleman listens to a witness testify
Norm Coleman listens as a witness is examined by his lawyer during Thursday's court session at the Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday, January 29, 2008.
AP Pool-Pioneer Press/Ben Garvin

3:25 p.m.

Two witnesses testified Thursday afternoon in Republican Norm Coleman's U.S. Senate recount contest.

Peter Robert DeMuth, a college student in Fargo, took the stand when court reconvened after lunch. DeMuth told the three-judge panel he filled out an absentee ballot on Oct. 11, 2008, but didn't know his vote had been rejected until three weeks ago, when he received a phone call from representatives at the Republican Party.

DeMuth said he filled out his absentee ballot application online, and used the computer's mouse to sign his initials on the electronic form. He didn't sign his entire name, he said, because it was too hard to do so using the mouse.

"It was hard, so I did my initials only," he told the judges, adding that the initials on the application form apparently did not match his signature on the actual absentee ballot envelope.

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When Coleman attorney Jim Langdon asked him why he drove so far to be here today, DeMuth said: "Because I want my vote counted."

The second witness was James Daniel Wadzinski, of Hastings.

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann later took the stand after the two witnesses.

In his testimony, Gelbmann told the judges that often it's possible to tell from the face of a rejected absentee ballot whether it was wrongly rejected or not.

"In some cases you can. In some cases you can't," Gelbmann said.

Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky took the stand shortly after 3 p.m.

12:45 p.m.

With Democrat Al Franken holding a 225-vote lead following a statewide recount, Republican Norm Coleman is eyeing a pool of rejected absentees that could yet win him a second term.

Jim Gelbmann
Jim Gelbmann, Deputy Secretary of State for Minnesota, testifies Thursday at the Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul, Minn., on January 29, 2008.
AP Pool-Pioneer Press/Ben Garvin

Coleman wants the three-judge panel hearing the case to review about 11,000 such ballots and decide how many should be added to the count. Franken opposes the move, arguing that most rejections were proper under state law.

The fight over rejected absentees is not new. Franken pressed to include many of them during the recount, and Minnesota's Supreme Court set up a process that ultimately added more than 900 to the tally.

Franken attorney David Lillehaug, in questioning Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann, introduced correspondence between Coleman's attorneys and state election officials in late December, when the recount was under way.

In the letters and e-mails, Coleman's attorneys sign off on the processes established to accept some previously rejected absentee ballots.

One e-mail from Coleman attorney Tony Trimble read: "Even if an absentee ballot was voted in person or witnessed by city and county officials, the lack of a voter signature or a mismatched signature nevertheless constitutes proper grounds for rejecting the ballot under Minnesota law."

Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg quickly went down the same road as Lillehaug. The Franken campaign, he said, argued for liberal standards on the absentees during the recount. Now that Franken leads, they've gone the other direction, he said.

He introduced a Franken campaign memo from late December that read: "The board must consider and take into account all ballots cast including validly cast absentee ballots that have been wrongfully rejected."

James Wadzinski
James Wadzinski of Hastings takes the stand Thursday to talk about his absentee vote during a trial at the Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul, Minn., on January 29, 2008. He's one of the witnesses the Coleman campaign called in hopes of illustrating their point about disenfranchised voters.
AP Pool-Pioneer Press/Ben Garvin

The same memo argued that election officials should count votes "even when doing so conflicts with a technical procedural rule."

And it read: "The true results of an election should not be determined by an innocent failure to comply strictly with the statute."

Coleman's attorneys have argued that their position on rejected absentees has always been that the place to consider them was in a lawsuit, as Coleman has brought, rather than during the recount.

11:49 a.m.

The Coleman legal team withdrew its challenge this morning on the 171 ballots elections officials in Maplewood found during the recount. The ballots were not counted on election night, and later added to the final count.

Coleman's attorney Ben Ginsberg said the chain of custody of those ballots was never broken, making those ballots valid.

"Under the belief that all valid votes should be counted, the chain of custody questions that we had, have now been satisfactorily answered," Ginsberg said. "So because those are valid votes, they should be counted."

Franken's lawyers last week asked the judges to reject Coleman's claims that vote irregularities made the recount unreliable in several precincts.

In all, Coleman's lawyers have identified 86 precincts where they said problems may have contributed to Democrat Al Franken's 225-vote lead after the recount.

10:41 a.m.

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann resumed his third day of testimony today about the history and details of the Senate recount process.

The morning started with Gelbmann fielding questions from Democrat Al Franken's attorney David Lillehaug.

During the questioning, Gelbmann testified about the intricacies of how election judges are trained, as well as how the process for marking and rejecting absentee ballots works.

"We instruct our judges to err on the side of allowing the vote," when the signature on the ballots do not look exactly the same, Gelbmann said. "If there's any doubt that the signature may be of the same person, let the vote go forward."

Gelbmann also said he believes local election officials "exercised very due diligence" when rejecting absentee ballots.

Today is the fourth day of the trial in Republican Norm Coleman's senate election contest. Coleman is trying to overturn the state canvassing board's decision that Franken received 225 more votes than Coleman.

Gelbmann will likely testify until midday.

Ramsey County Elections manager Joe Mansky is expected to take the stand later this afternoon.