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Senate election trial: Date miscues raise ballot questions

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Senate election trial: Date miscues raise ballot questions
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

ST. PAUL -- Al Franken wants 60 rejected St. Louis County absentee ballots added to November's election tally even though dates on related paperwork do not match.

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St. Louis County took the trial spotlight Thursday while behind the scenes the Franken campaign sought to have Norm Coleman's U.S. Senate election challenge thrown out of court

The county's election chief, Paul Tynjala, and Duluth City Clerk Jeff Cox spent much of the day on the witness stand saying that most of the 60 disputed absentee ballots should be counted. Most of those were rejected because dates voters signed the ballots were different than dates witnesses signed.

While the northern Minnesota election officials testified in public, much attention turned to Franken's effort to dismiss the lawsuit. The three-judge panel hearing the case will listen to arguments on the motion this afternoon.

A motion to dismiss is common after those bringing a suit rest their case, which Coleman's attorneys did on Monday.

Franken attorney Marc Elias said he expects his team to take about two weeks to argue its case, but judges may need to go through hundreds of ballots after the attorneys finish their work. And the loser is expected to appeal the judicial panel's decision.

Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg said that about 2,000 ballots remain in dispute. His legal team is trying to get all possible ballots counted to overcome Franken's 225-vote lead.

But starting on Tuesday, Franken attorneys have been trying to add votes for their candidate. If more votes are allowed, they expect to pick up most St. Louis County ballots because the population there is heavily Democratic.

Going into the November election, Cox followed a rule that required election judges to throw out any absentee ballots where dates the voter and witness signed absentee paperwork did not match. However, after the November election, it became clear that those should be counted.

"It was an evolving process," he said.

Franken attorneys walked Cox and Tynjala through the 60 disputed absentee ballots, discussing in detail each one, along with accompanying documents.

State law specifies four reasons to reject an absentee ballot. However, many of St. Louis County's rejected ballots were not counted because the date mismatch, not one of the four reasons.

Tynjala said 515 absentee votes were rejected throughout St. Louis County. Of those, election officials decided 161 should have been counted.

As the two campaigns reviewed the ballots in December, Coleman's attorneys took advantage of a right given by the Supreme Court to keep 60 of those ballots - mostly from Duluth -- from being counted.

Tynjala and Cox told the judges that for nearly every ballot the Franken team brought up, there was no reason to reject the ballots.

"The voter did what they were supposed to do," Tynjala said about one voter, similar to what the election officials said about others, too.

Cox, who said election judges may average 70 years of age, said each worker goes through at least two hours of training before an election. They do a "very commendable job," he said, adding "it's a long day many times for them."

Tynjala and his boss, County Auditor Don Dicklich, said that despite the extra work of a statewide recount and the trial, the effort is worthwhile.

"This will give (the public) confidence in the process," Dicklich said.

However, Ginsberg raised doubts about the process.

"There were a lot of mistakes in this election," Ginsberg said.

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

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Pioneer staff reports
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