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U.S. Senate Race: Rural counties' practices questioned

ST. PAUL - Five Minnesota Supreme Court justices must decide whether thousands of greater Minnesota voters' absentee ballots were unfairly rejected in the 2008 U.S. Senate race.

Republican Norm Coleman's attorneys Monday told the justices 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 favor of Democrat Al Franken.

Those Democratic-heavy counties "are the counties that relaxed the standards and let the votes in," Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg said after a Monday high court hearing.

"Good, ole conservative Republican counties followed the rules."

Coleman, who appealed a three-judge panel's decision, said he hopes the Supreme Court sends the case back to the lower court with instructions to count more absentee ballots that had been rejected for a variety of reasons. He hopes that will give him the votes to beat challenger Franken.

"It has been about the opportunity to insure that ... 4,000 Minnesotans whose votes were not counted" are added to the total, Coleman said after a fast-paced, 70-minute hearing. "I don't know what is in those ballots, but every one of those would have been counted had they lived in a different area."

"There is a geographical difference," added Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg. "Depending on where you sleep, that depends whether you vote gets counted. That's imminently correctable."

The attorney said he is not accusing anyone of breaking the law, but since larger counties counted more absentee ballots - and they cannot be uncounted - then smaller counties should do the same.

Monday's hearing, featuring justices regularly interrupting Friedberg and Franken attorney Marc Elias, will result in a decision to either toss out Coleman's case, which could result in Franken becoming senator, or send the case back to the district court panel to consider counting more absentee ballots.

After 2.9 million Minnesotans went to the polls last Nov. 4, after a statewide recount and after a lengthy district court trial, Franken leads Coleman by 312 votes.

Coleman's Senate term ended in early January, about the same time he announced he would challenge the election outcome. On election night, it appeared Coleman would win, but Franken later took the lead, which has grown slightly.

The three-judge panel began hearing Coleman's challenge on Jan. 26, releasing its ruling against the Republican on April 13.

Coleman sat quietly in the Supreme Court chamber through Monday's hearing; his wife Laurie was one of about 45 spectators. Franken was not there.

Elias, a nationally prominent Democratic elections-law attorney, sounded confident following Monday's hearing.

Less than two hours after the hearing, Franken Campaign Manager Stephanie Schriock sent a message to supporters asking for donations to keep the fight going.

Shriock said the campaign expects to win, but also thinks Coleman could take the case to federal courts.

"Although this should be the last step in the process, national Republicans have offered to bankroll even more legal challenges on behalf of their candidate," Shriock said.

Coleman refused to say whether he will take the case to federal court, but said that if he does, it will be "to enfranchise those 4,000 citizens."

The two campaigns already have spent nearly $50 million combined since the candidates entered the race, the most expensive and one of the most hotly contested in Minnesota history.

The issue is of national interest because Democrats and their independent allies hold 59 votes in the Senate. If they get one more, they can avoid Republican filibusters and other parliamentary maneuvers that can delay or kill Democratic initiatives, including those by President Barack Obama.

Elias disputed the Coleman greater Minnesota disenfranchise argument, saying that it is only natural that election officials in different counties handle things differently.

For instance, he told the justices, it may be easier to figure out if a voter is registered in rural Pine County than it is in the state's largest city, Minneapolis. In Pine County, he said, there may only be one street called "Main." But in Minneapolis, there could be a Main Street, a Main Boulevard and other roads with the name "main," making election workers work harder to verify registration.

Friedberg argued that just six or seven of the state's 87 counties checked whether people who witnessed absentee voters casting ballots were registered, as required by state law.

Friedberg said it is not fair that St. Louis County rejected no absentee ballots for that reason, while the Twin Cities suburb of Plymouth rejected 67 itself.

Elias said that whether to count each ballot must be decided on its own: "Every ballot has a story."

Justices questioned why Friedberg did not submit more evidence in the district court trial.

He tried, Friedberg said, but judges would not let him.

Justice Christopher Dietzen said Friedberg made claims, but produced "no concrete evidence to back it up."

Justice Alan Page, the longest-serving high court member, wondered aloud: "Do we have authority to do anything here?"

The court can decide who collected the most votes, Elias responded, but the Senate ultimately decides who is seated.