A top Minnesota election official said Thursday the pool of rejected absentee ballots is about 3,000, far less than the vote gap in the undecided governor's race.
State Elections Director Gary Poser told The Associated Press that the number of denied ballots stood at 3,021, but even that could shrink.
"We also don't know if any of these 3,000 then were notified their ballot was rejected and they went and voted in person," Poser said.
The finding highlights Republican Tom Emmer's challenge as he seeks to overcome Democrat Mark Dayton's nearly 9,000-vote lead in a possible recount or court case.
Local election officials are in the tedious stage of double-checking their math and updating voter information in a statewide database. The vote difference between Dayton and Emmer is likely to shift between now and the time the state canvassing board meets on Nov. 23. An automatic recount - if Emmer stays within half a percentage point - won't start before then.
Rejected absentee ballots were a flashpoint in Minnesota's disputed Senate election two years ago. Democrat Al Franken successfully petitioned to examine and include more ballots in the final count, but he had already built a slight lead over Republican Sen. Norm Coleman by the time any previously rejected ballots were opened.
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There were an estimated 12,000 rejected ballots in that election.
Before this election, Minnesota lawmakers changed the process to give voters early warning if an absentee ballot wasn't properly cast so they could try to submit a replacement ballot.
Republican officials said Wednesday they planned to look hard at the mechanics of the election to detect any wide-scale fraud that could change the result.
There were more than 2.1 million ballots cast in the election. Election experts said flipping the result will be difficult for Emmer.
Richard Hasen from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles said he had never heard of a such a wide margin being overturned in a recount, barring something extraordinary.
"I can't remember anything close," he said. "To get such a large number, there either has to be some stack of ballots that were not counted, some major kind of technological failure or fraud."
Associated Press writer Chris Williams contributed from Minneapolis.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)