Judges: No widespread problem with rejected ballots shown

Ballot initials
Judge Denise Reilly asks a question about initials on a ballot during the U.S. Senate recount trial in St. Paul.
AP Photo/ David Joles, Pool

Both sides in Minnesota's U.S. Senate recount trial claimed victory following a ruling by a three-judge panel Friday evening. The judges ruled on which categories of rejected absentee ballots they'll consider as the trial moves forward.

Lawyers for Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman had taken widely opposing views on which standard the judges should use to count absentee ballots.

The three-judge panel ordered that rejected absentee ballots in about a dozen of 19 categories should not be counted in the Senate race.

Coleman had wanted to count ballots in all but three of those categories. He argued that as many as 4,800 rejected absentee ballots were excluded inconsistently and, therefore, should be counted.

Franken, on the other hand, asked the panel to take a hard line on counting additional ballots. He objected to most of the 19 the categories.

The judges' ruling does not specify how many ballots are now off-limits, and the exact number is likely to shift in the coming days as both sides have time to interpret the ruling.

Coleman's attorneys say that by their estimates, the order eliminates only about 800 ballots from being counted.

Ben Ginsberg, one of Coleman's attorneys, says the ruling is a victory for his client.

He says the ruling leaves the Coleman camp with plenty of ballots to potentially overturn the State Canvassing Board's finding's that put Franken ahead by 225 votes.

"While some got knocked out, and we're saddened by that, a whole bunch votes more than Al Franken ever wanted to put in this race are now going to get counted. And that's good for those voters," said Ginsberg.

In the ruling, the judges excluded categories such as ballots submitted by voters not registered in the precinct where they live and late ballots by people in the military serving overseas.

The court also raised the burden of evidence for the Coleman campaign, saying that they must now prove that a ballot was legally cast, not just improperly rejected.

Over the past three weeks, lawyers for Franken have said that the judges should limit the categories of ballots under consideration based on a strict reading of Minnesota election law.

Franken attorney Marc Elias says he's pleased with the court's decision, even though he hasn't estimated exactly how many ballots it affects.

"I think it's fair to say that this will do exactly what the court had signaled in both the scheduling the oral arguments, which is to streamline the process of the trial," said Elias.

Over the past several weeks, the pace of the trial has been agonizingly slow. Coleman's attorneys introduced ballots one at a time in order to get them into evidence, and ultimately a shot at getting the panel to count them.

Attorneys from both sides have said that if the judges made certain groups of ballots off-limits, it would likely bring the trial to a quicker end.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.