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St. Louis County in trial spotlight

ST. PAUL -- There is more to the story of St. Louis County's controversial 300 ballots.

St. Louis County officials said Thursday there is a legitimate explanation for at least some of the 300 ballots Norm Coleman's campaign has described as "illegal," and they are reviewing others.

And just as St. Louis County was a topic of discussion around the U.S. Senate election trial Thursday, a Duluth official sought to avoid having to testify in the trial unless he was guaranteed more reimbursement money.

With the help of the city attorney's office, Duluth City Clerk Jeffrey Cox asked to be excused from a subpoena by Al Franken's campaign to appear as a trial witness.

St. Louis County Elections Director Paul Tynjala spent Thursday reviewing controversial ballot documents from his county and determining that Coleman's claim of "illegal" ballots is not entirely accurate.

A day earlier, Coleman's campaign showed reporters examples of 300 absentee ballot documents from St. Louis County. The documents - mostly copies of absentee ballot envelopes - lacked required voter and witness information, but had contained votes that were counted anyway in the Nov. 4 election, Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg alleged.

An initial review of at least 80 of those ballots, including three from Duluth voters overseas, suggests the voter and witness provided the required information and signatures, Tynjala said.

He said that in the case of the three Duluth votes, the confusion may have arisen because local election officials transferred those voters' documents - a sealed secrecy envelope containing the ballot and a form with voter and witness information - from the envelopes they were mailed in to standard absentee ballot envelopes available at the county.

That was done after county officials determined the votes should be counted, Tynjala said, and the new envelopes simply were used to keep related documents together before election night counting in precincts. But local officials did not complete a form on those transfer envelopes, leaving it to appear on the surface that they were incomplete.

Coleman's campaign used a data request to receive absentee ballot information from St. Louis County, but local officials may not have included copies of the forms properly signed by the voter and witness, Tynjala said. Instead, Coleman was using the transfer envelopes

If that's the case, the county did not respond fully to a records request by the campaign, Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg said. Also, he said, state law does not say such transfer envelopes should be used.

Ginsberg maintained that most of those 300 ballots that were included in the election night tally would be considered "illegal" based on a recent decision by the three-judge panel about certain categories of absentee ballots that will not be reviewed in the trial.

Tynjala said he plans to review more of the ballots to confirm the county's belief that the ballots were lawfully cast.

Tynjala, who is planning to testify in the trial, said he did not expect the ballot flap this week, but was not surprised given the scrutiny ballots have received in the trial.

"It's always going to be something," he said. "At least I know what they're going to question me about."

Tynjala and St. Louis County Auditor Don Dicklich received subpoenas from the Franken campaign to testify. Cox, the Duluth official, also received the witness order, but is challenging it.

In a letter to the court, Duluth Deputy Attorney Alison Lutterman said the city asked that Cox be paid $1,150.50 in advance, to cover the cost of his lost work time and travel expenses, but that he only has received a check from the Franken campaign for $105.

The city and Cox are not directly involved in the case and should not be expected to subsidize Franken's litigation expenses, Lutterman wrote.

"In other words, the city and its employees don't have a 'dog in the fight,'" she wrote.

The city should not be asked to bear the expense during a tough budget time, she added.

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