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They think outside the oval in Minnesota

Recount officials put a finer point on iffy ballots, giving Franken a lead over Coleman.

December 20, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter

Darn those pesky ovals.

For the last month, the U.S. Senate race in Minnesota between Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken has been hung up by several thousand voters who apparently weren't content to color inside the lines, offering instead Xs, underlines, blotches, check marks and ink smears on their ballots.

On Friday, the ovals struck again.

Recount officials accepted the ballot of a voter in Rochester, Minn., who filled in the oval -- and a big chunk of the area nearby -- for Franken.

It was enough to push the former "Saturday Night Live" writer into the lead for the first time -- and send election watchers rolling their eyes over the unpredictable kookiness of it all.

"What's so hard in figuring out how to fill in the dot?" asked David Schultz, an election law professor at Hamline University in St. Paul. "I voted absentee ballot and my pen ran out of ink. I was smart enough to go get a new pen. It's not that tough."

By the end of the day, according to the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Franken had skyrocketed to a 251-vote lead -- out of 2.9 million cast in the election. Coleman's lead had once stood at 725 votes.

Franken campaign officials tried to contain their glee.

"We went into this recount at a virtual tie," said Marc Elias, attorney for Franken. "Anyone who watched the challenge process will tell you we won more votes than they did. As we stand today, other than the absentee ballots, we are ahead."

The Coleman camp, however, remained cool.

"We think that when the recount process is completed, Sen. Coleman's going to come out on top," said Mark Drake, Coleman's campaign spokesman. Drake noted that the campaign filed a petition Friday with the Minnesota Supreme Court, alleging that the recount process was including duplicated ballots.

"We have predicted that the numbers would come out upside down for a while, because of the way some of the procedures are happening," Drake said. "This is not a surprise for us at all."

Who knows where the ovals will lead.

The ballots counted Friday came from a pool of more than 1,000 that had been challenged by one campaign or the other.

The state canvassing board, which is in charge of the recount, is next expected to deal with about 5,000 ballots that the candidates have withdrawn challenges over. The board could allocate those votes Monday.

The final batch is an estimated 1,600 absentee ballots that were initially rejected because of administrative errors or other problems. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the ballots should be counted despite the Coleman campaign's objections. The absentee totals are required to be sent to the canvassing board by Dec. 31.

It is uncertain whether a winner will be named before the new Congress convenes on Jan. 6, and there have been rumblings that Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, may appoint someone to the Senate seat on a temporary basis. Pawlenty, however, has told local media that he expects the election to be resolved before then.

If ovals weren't enough of a headache, Coleman's woes recently grew amid allegations that emerged in a pair of civil lawsuits, which accuse a political patron of funneling tens of thousands of dollars in unreported funds from his Texas oil services firm to the senator via Coleman's wife's employer.

The Colemans are not being sued and deny any wrongdoing. The senator blames the Franken campaign for fueling media attention on the subject.

This fight over the country's only undecided Senate race has whipsawed political emotions across Minnesota, sparking dozens of lawsuits from the campaigns and testing voters' patience in the North Star State.

Neither man pulled in more than 42% of the vote, partly due to the months of negative attack ads and the late introduction of a third-party candidate.

The morning after election day, Coleman declared victory and urged his rival to waive his right to a recount, which state law requires in races where the margin between winner and loser is less than one-half of 1%. Coleman said the chance of the Democrat snatching victory away from him was remote.

Franken said he hadn't lost.

When the state recount began Nov. 19, Coleman had 215 ballots more than Franken. On Thursday evening, he held a mere 5-vote lead.

Who could have guessed that filling in an oval -- a skill usually mastered in elementary school -- could be so vexing?

Among the piles of ballots to recount were crossed-out ovals, check-marked ovals, annotated ovals ("I really do want to vote for Coleman"), both ovals marked, ovals hand-drawn to fall precisely between candidates, circled ovals, ovals with a star in them, and ovals with a dot inside.

"In the end, it comes down to whose voters were not swift enough to follow the rules," Schultz said.

Under Minnesota law, if the intent of a voter can be determined, then the vote counts, even if the rules weren't followed precisely.

"A lot of people view it all as a messy continuation of a messy campaign," said Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. "I don't think most Minnesotans are seeing themselves as living in civic heaven."

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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