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Franni and Al Franken were all smiles Tuesday afternoon following a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that made him the next U.S. senator. They talked to reporters in front of their Minneapolis townhouse. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

Franken wins longest election

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ST. PAUL - Nearly 3 million Minnesotans voted for a U.S. Senate candidate eight months ago, but in the end only five votes counted, those state Supreme Court justices who Tuesday decided Al Franken will be the state's second U.S. senator.

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The high court's unanimous decision giving Franken a 312-vote victory convinced Norm Coleman to end his re-election battle, sending Franken to Washington to give Democrats 60 Senate votes, the most dominate voting bloc in 30 years.

Tuesday's court ruling ended Minnesota's longest election contest.

"Franni and I are so thrilled that we can finally celebrate this victory," Franken said, his wife at his side in front of their downtown Minneapolis townhouse.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie signed Franken's election certificate Tuesday night. He could be sworn in early next week, although that has yet to be decided.

Franken is to attend a mid-day State Capitol victory rally today, then head to the Iron Range for holiday parades this weekend before flying to Washington early next week.

The election was watched across the country because with Franken's win, Democrats and their allies have 60 votes in the Senate. That allows Democrats to break Republican filibusters, giving them a better chance to pass their bills, as well as those of Democratic President Barack Obama. The president on Tuesday issued a statement congratulating Franken.

But the former "Saturday Night Live" star and author said that while he will be the 60th senator to vote Democratic, that is not why he ran. "I'm going to Washington to be the second Minnesota senator."

Coleman said he fought in court because he thought he won the Nov. 4 election, but on Tuesday he accepted the court's decision.

In a call Coleman made to Franken, the two agreed "it is time to bring this state together," Franken said.

"I congratulate Al Franken and his victory in this election," Coleman said from the lawn of his St. Paul home. "He now enjoys the advantage that our congressional delegation has over the other 525 people on Capitol Hill: He represents Minnesota. "

Coleman would not comment about his future, but said that information will come soon enough. Some speculate he will run for governor.

"I don't reach this point with any big regrets," said Coleman, who served one term in the Senate after working in the state Attorney General's Office and being St. Paul mayor. "I ran the campaign I wanted. I conducted the legal challenge I wanted. And I have always believed you do the best you can and leave the results up to a higher authority. I'm at peace with that."

Franken began his campaign in February 2007, a campaign that landed him in hot water with some in his own party when they learned about comments many thought were offensive to women. But he survived and won the party's endorsement, only to fight Republican Coleman in one of the country's fiercest political battles.

It also was expensive, probably topping $50 million for the campaign and post-campaign court expenses between the two candidates.

Coleman led early the morning after election day, but by just 727 votes, 0.01 percent of the 2.9 million cast. As election officials checked their work, however, Franken soon gained a slim lead and expanded that lead in a statewide recount.

The lead held when a three-judge panel ruled against Coleman's challenge in April, a decision the Supreme Court affirmed Tuesday.

"I think what you had was 12 judges look at this through the canvassing process, through the recount and throughout the trial, and all agreeing unanimously that I won more votes than anybody else in the election," Franken said.

Soon after the Supreme Court decision, Franken sent a letter to supporters seeking more money for his court costs, but also talked about issues he will face in Washington.

"We know what we want: an economy that works for everyone, universal health care and to create new jobs through renewable energy investment," Franken wrote. "As senator-elect, I intend to take our shared vision of progress to Washington and try to do right by every single Minnesotan."

He said he will serve on committees dealing with health, education, labor, pensions, courts, Indian affairs and aging.

Much of Franken's time in recent months has been spent getting ready to be senator, both at home and in Washington. He said he already has hired most of his Washington and Minnesota staff.

"I can hit the ground, if not running, trotting," he joked.

Franken will get a late start in the Senate, and with such a small margin of victory, the Democrat said the job will not be easy He said he needs to earn the trust of those who did not vote for him.

In their Tuesday ruling, justices repeatedly wrote that Coleman failed to prove his claim that there were problems counting absentee ballots.

"We affirm the decision of the trial court that Al Franken received the highest number of votes legally cast and is entitled ... to receive the certificate of election as United States senator from the state of Minnesota," the justices wrote.

Coleman contended that absentee ballots accepted on Election Day and in the recount that followed did not meet standards the lower court established and there were differences among counties in deciding what ballots should be counted.

However, the justices said state law is clear that decisions about what ballots should be counted need to be made before they are deposited in ballot boxes, not afterwards.

The law is "not violated every time public officials apply ... state laws differently," the five justices wrote.

Two justices did not take part in the decision because they were involved in the race's recount.

The high court essentially was looking at whether thousands of absentee ballots from outside Minnesota's largest cities were improperly rejected.

Coleman's attorneys told the justices on June 1 that laws were not evenly applied, and actions in larger counties such as St. Louis, Ramsey and Hennepin tilted last Nov. 4's U.S. Senate election in Franken's favor.

Democratic-heavy counties "are the counties that relaxed the standards and let the votes in," Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg said.

Coleman had hoped that the justices would send the case back to the three-judge district court panel to consider counting more ballots.

The high court was looking at a case resulting in the longest-ever time Minnesota has gone without one of its two U.S. senators. Coleman's Senate term ended in early January.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.

Y ddavis@forumcomm.com

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