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Senate election trial intrigue lost on observers

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ST. PAUL -- Minnesota voters - and even politically engaged college students -- have little interest in details of the prolonged U.S. Senate election trial, a professor monitoring the proceeding said.

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"I think they're lost," Bemidji State University journalism instructor Louise Mengelkoch said Friday. "I don't know anybody who follows it, because it's infuriating."

Mengelkoch has monitored the trial, heading into its fifth week, on the Internet from northern Minnesota, but spent part of Friday observing the proceeding in the St. Paul courtroom.

"I'm fascinated by it just because it's so excruciating," Mengelkoch said, adding that her students do not share her interest

The case started at a painfully slow pace, but has moved faster in recent days. The trial's 20th day saw a flurry of legal requests from Norm Coleman's campaign amid continued testimony from local election officials about how they decided which absentee ballots to include in the Nov. 4 election and the Senate recount.

Whether certain absentee ballots were wrongly rejected in the election tally is a key issue in Coleman's lawsuit. He is challenging Al Franken's 225-vote victory following the statewide recount of 2.9 million votes.

Coleman's campaign called five county officials to the witness stand Friday.

Carolyn Holmsten, Goodhue County's elections chief, faced questions about a handful of absentee ballots that she and other Goodhue County election workers rejected in the election. Some of those ballots fall into categories Coleman's campaign wants considered for possible counting in the trial. Franken's attorneys wondered why others were rejected.

The local officials' testimony was overshadowed by the campaigns' maneuvering inside and outside the courtroom.

Coleman's campaign continued to claim some ballots included in the election tally would be considered illegally cast under a recent ruling by the three-judge panel.

The campaign said if the judges do not reconsider their recent ruling that blocked some types of absentee ballots from being included in the trial, the court would have to go back through all absentee ballots cast in the election to find those that would be considered illegal under the recent decision.

Franken's team said Coleman's team was trying to back out of an agreement it made about some absentee ballots and to cast doubt on the trial.

"This is the next step in the attack on the integrity of Minnesota's election system and, I believe, a step toward attacking the legitimacy of this proceeding," Franken attorney David Lillehaug said.

Similar ballots must be treated the same way whether they were counted in the election or considered in the trial, Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg said.

Douglas County election official Vicki Doehling waited a few hours early Friday before she took the witness stand. She was questioned about one ballot that was rejected because the voter cast the absentee ballot in the wrong precinct. Coleman's campaign tried to demonstrate that was caused by a mistake of the voter and of an election worker. A Franken attorney suggested only the voter was at fault and that the ballot was properly rejected.

That was typical of issues raised through trial testimony the past four weeks. Discussion about how specific ballots are handled is too detailed to intrigue casual political observers, Mengelkoch concluded.

The professor said her students showed much more interest in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections than they have in their own state's contentious Senate battle.

"They were more dramatic," she said of the earlier elections. "The drama has almost been sucked out of this (race)."

Mengelkoch said she is considering using the Senate election and the news coverage of the trial as a case study in a journalism class next fall. Students could be required to watch several hours of the proceeding.

"It would be interesting to make them keep it on their computer for a day," she said, "so they get the feeling of the agony of it."

While some local election officials have acknowledged lawfully cast but uncounted absentee ballots exist, they also have testified that they administered the election according to state law.

Goodhue County has 58 uncounted absentee ballots that were rejected because they did not meet state requirements, Holmsten said. Attorneys quizzed her on the details of one in which a signature appeared more like a scribble and another in which the voter had his wife, as power of attorney, complete the ballot. Still others were flagged because local election officials thought the absentee ballot witness was not a registered voter.

"I wouldn't change my mind on any of them after this," she said following her testimony. However, Holmsten added, she could be convinced otherwise depending on how the judges rule on certain ballot categories. "I would need more answers.

Through their questioning of Doehling, the attorneys argued over whether it was the voter's responsibility to update his voter registration information, including a change of address, or a Douglas County election official was partially to blame for the registration problem.

Doehling told a Franken attorney that it ultimately is the voter's responsibility to maintain current voter registration information, but then was asked by a Coleman attorney whether the incident was a "shared mistake" by the voter and the election official, who failed to notice an address change.

"I would concede that," she said.

Before she testified, Doehling said Douglas County election officials found no absentee ballots that they had wrongly rejected in the election. She said that was possible by limiting the number of people who handled the ballots.

"The more hands you have in a pot, the more chance of error you have," Doehling said.

Scott Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.

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