Minn. Senate trial completes week 4, more in store

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Not a single new vote has been counted. In fact, lawyers for Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken are still fighting over which uncounted absentee ballots to let in and which keep out. They have barely touched on another pressing matter: whether to scrap votes over alleged counting irregularities during a recount tally that gave Franken a 225-vote lead.

The three judges hearing Coleman's challenge to the recount result say little in open court about their timeline for deciding key points in the case. Their written orders don't give much more guidance about when the long-running Senate battle - nearly four full months past Election Day - will end.

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"Where we are is we're in the middle of their case," Franken lawyer Marc Elias said during a break Friday. "I don't know how much longer it will go on. That's a question you should ask the other side."

Coleman's lawyers have sped up their case in recent days, but even they're not guessing how soon it'll be done.

The trial days tend to blend together with the lawyers asking largely the same questions. Only the person in the witness chair changes. (On Friday, it was elections officials from Crow Wing, Douglas, Goodhue and Sherburne counties.)

The questioning of Sherburne County Auditor-Treasurer Diane Arnold typified the proceedings.

For a solid hour, Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg presented Arnold photocopies of absentee ballot envelopes that had been rejected by poll workers.

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He worked toward a common conclusion, asking Arnold at several points: "Do you know of any reason why that ballot should not be counted?"

Arnold would reply: "No, I do not."

Case closed? Hardly.

Minutes later, Franken attorney Kevin Hamilton revisited the same ballots and asked whether she was sure all relevant details were dealt with: That the voter was registered, the ballot signature matched one on file and that the person didn't show up in person to cast a replacement ballot.

"Only after we verified all that would we know whether we want to count that ballot, correct?" Hamilton asked Arnold.

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"True," she'd reply in each instance.

That's not to say the trial is void of wrinkles.

On Friday, Coleman's team stirred things up by filing an emergency request seeking to block the secretary of state's office from deleting identifying information from already counted absentee ballots and their accompanying envelopes. The 933 once-rejected ballots were counted Jan. 3, and both sides agreed earlier this month they wouldn't revisit them.

The filing prompted complaints from the Franken campaign that Coleman was trying to renege on the past deal and violate voter privacy. Franken's lawyers went so far as to seek sanctions on Coleman's team.

Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg denied accusations that his client would try to cancel some of those votes. Coleman's attorneys contend some of the 933 ballots could now be considered ineligible under a recent ruling by the judges on the categories of absentee ballots they would eventually count.

In the end, the fracas might have been all for nothing.

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann said pursuant to a previous order from the judges, officials had blacked out information on about half the ballots before they learned of Coleman's request. Once they got word, they stopped scribbling out numbers with markers, he said.

"If someone were very determined to find out what's underneath that Sharpie marking, I would assume there'd be some forensic way to determine, recreate those numbers that we had redacted," he said.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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