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Historic U.S. Senate recount under way across Minnesota; Franken wins ballot case

UPDATED 1:05 p.m.

Clay County recount

UPDATED 1:05 p.m.
ST. PAUL - A historic recount was under way across Minnesota today, possibly with control of the U.S. Senate being decided.

While the recount was just getting started, a judge ordered Ramsey County to turn over a list of voters whose absentee ballots were rejected. Al Franken's campaign asked for the order, and officials there expected other counties to comply.

No major problems were reported early, though many county elections officials fielded questions for the historic recount.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said delays were reported when dealing with overseas ballots, but few other issues were heard.

"This is Day 1, a sort of learn-how-to-do-it day," he said.

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While things appeared to be running generally smoothly, Ritchie added, the nasty Senate campaign was carrying over to a certain extent.

"The mood is weird, but not too bad," said Ritchie, the top state elections official. "There is a lot of tension."

Hundreds of elections officials, at least as many observers working for the two Senate campaigns and simply interested Minnesotans gathered in government buildings across the state.

But while Minnesotans watched the recount in a tight race between Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Franken, the specter of legal challenges remained near.

Massive legal teams for both campaigns stood ready to go to court over a variety of issues, possibly giving judges the final decision about who is elected.

Every one of the 2.9 million ballots cast on Nov. 4, and earlier as absentee votes, will be examined individually at 107 sites across the state. It probably will not be until the last half of December before Minnesotans know who they elected because the state Canvassing Board will need to examine any ballots the Senate campaigns dispute.

After local elections officials conducted preliminary vote reviews since the election, Coleman held a 215-vote lead.

It is the closest election in state history, following the most expensive Minnesota campaign ever.

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Reports from around the state indicate relatively few ballots were challenged ballots and no big changes in the earlier vote totals in the early going, but officials said they expected more challenges as the day wore on.

In Kandiyohi County, for instance, Colman picked up two votes in the first two hours and there were no challenged ballots in Kandiyohi County precincts outside of Willmar.

In Willmar, a voter on the one ballot challenged in the first hour marked a big "X" next between the ballot circles for candidates Dean Barkley and Coleman. The city recount judges ruled that there was not clear voter intent. City Clerk Kevin Halliday said that the voting machine had counted the challenged ballot as a vote for Coleman.

So many Franken observers showed up at the Clay County Courthouse in Moorhead that they discussed sending some to nearby Fergus Falls.

No fewer than 12 election observers were there for Franken, with at least four observers for Coleman.

A strip of masking tape separates the four rows of public chairs from the counting area, which consists of four long tables arranged in a square, with about a dozen election judges sitting around them. These are the people who will count the ballots, one by one, a process expected to take at least two days, Clay County Auditor Lori Johnson said. As the day began, 28 boxes of ballots were stacked on a table at the front of room.

At 10 a.m., Johnson ex-plained that the process is "simply to physically recount the ballots for this race." If there's a difference in the vote count, it's not unusual, and that's why Minnesota has the recount law, she said.

"Normally the results of an election are not changed by these adjustments, but it does happen," Johnson said.

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Four representatives for each candidate -- one for each table -- were allowed to come forward to observe the Clay County recount process. Two elderly women wearing badges that say "non-partisan observer" were the only members of the public who don't appear to be affiliated with one of the campaigns.

The recount had barely started in Otter Tail County when the process came to a halt. The issue: observers from both campaigns wanted to see the back of the ballots being counted to determine if there were any identifying marks. Rules say any marks that would identify a voter renders an entire ballot invalid.

Otter Tail County Auditor Wayne Stein checked with the secretary of state's office and was told the same question was popping up at recount centers across the state.

He said election officials are being advised to allow observers to see the back of ballots, preferably by fanning out several at a time.

In Norman County, as a custodian brought boxes of ballots from the courthouse vault to the meeting room where ballots are being counted, a representative from each camp, along with the county auditor, monitored the process.

If the auditor needs to make photocopies of disputed ballots, representatives from each campaign will supervise that process, too.

Massive legal teams for both campaigns stood ready to go to court over a variety of issues, possibly giving judges the final decision about who is elected.

Elections officials began the day running down the rules for their workers and campaign observers, which included lawyers at most sites.

Every one of the 2.9 million ballots cast on Nov. 4, and earlier as absentee votes, will be examined individually at 107 sites across the state. However, it probably will not be until the last half of December before Minnesotans know who they elected because the state Canvassing Board will need to examine any ballots the Senate campaigns dispute.In Norman County, the recount was half done in the first hour, with no ballots challenged by either candidate.

In St. Louis County, with 187 precincts, it is expected to take at least five days for county auditor's office employees to count each ballot.

Bill Cortes of Duluth, an observer for the Franken campaign, said votes were being challenged because some voters mistakenly voted for multiple candidates in the same race. While those spoiled votes likely would have been noticed by electronic scanners, they may have been missed in polling places where ballots are counted by hand.

Dozens of Coleman and Franken supporters crammed into the county board chambers this morning, with officials from each camp watching county staff count the ballots, including out-of-town attorneys on both sides. Some campaign observers claimed the county employees were counting too fast, others that too many people were in the way.

About 20 partisan and non-partisan observers sat inside the Washington County Government Center's conference room in Stillwater as election officials started the recount of about 140,000 ballots.

Molly O'Rourke, a department administrator for Washington County, said the county is scheduled to finish the recount on Saturday, but hopes to complete the counting by Friday.

In today's legal action, Ramsey Country District Judge Dale Lindman told the county to give the Franken campaign the rejected absentee voter list it sought.

"Data already compiled in written form or routinely compiled by election officials, regarding the number of absentee votes, absentee voters, etc." are among items Lindman ordered turned over.

Franken's campaign must get the information today, the judge said.

Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Darwin Lookingbill argued that state law indicates the data included on the envelopes containing rejected ballots is private -- including voter name and address -- and that releasing it would lead to a small group of voters being "singled out for attention" by a campaign.

Franken attorney David Lillehaug said that data is public after the election and that the campaign only is asking for the data now.

Recounts today started at about half of the 107 sites, but other cities and counties begin their recounts at various times through Dec. 3.

Each night throughout the process, state officials will release unofficial recount returns, which the Colman campaign today warned would vary.

"It's important to remember that the vote count reflected today will swing wildly from day to day - and most likely - throughout the recount process," campaign officials wrote. "This is a natural process of the recount, and one which is expected and normal. When all is said and done, the key point is the final tally once the recount is completed. We believe it will remain a result that has Norm Coleman re-elected to the United States Senate."

Ritchie hopes to have the recount finished by Dec. 5. He plans to bring the Canvassing Board back into session on Dec. 16 to begin examining every ballot either campaign challenged. With the closeness of the vote, that is expected to determine who wins the election.

All of this carries national importance because by the time the recount is done, the U.S. Senate could have 59 Democrats - depending on a pending new Georgia vote in early December. If Democrats have 60 votes, they can stop Republican filibusters and more easily pass bills on their agenda.

That possibility attracted reporters from the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, CNN, Fox News and other national news outlets to Minnesota. Cable news channels delivered frequent updated on the recount today.

The West Central Tribune, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Duluth News Tribune contributed to this report.

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