Minnesota Senate race becomes court fight

The contest will continue, but Democrat Al Franken’s win seems secure.

By , Staff writer

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    Likely senator: Al Franken was recently certified as the winner after a recount gave him a 225-vote margin. Legal challenges from Republican Norm Coleman are expected to last for at least a couple of months.
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Even as the case of one unseated senator moves toward resolution, the other looks to be heading into a protracted legal battle.

Roland Burris, Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s pick from Illinois, seems likely to be seated quickly, as Senate leaders backed away last week from their refusal to acknowledge anyone chosen by Governor Blagojevich, who was impeached Friday.

But in Minnesota, where Al Franken holds a 225-vote lead over incumbent Norm Coleman, according to the recount certified earlier this month by the State Canvassing Board, Mr. Franken is now defending that lead in court. By Minnesota law, Franken can’t get an election certificate until all legal challenges are settled. The last time the state had a major recount, in the 1962 gubernatorial race, it wasn’t finalized until mid-March. Most observers expect the uncertainty this time to last at least as long.

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“At this point, we’re probably looking at a twisty, turny legal battle that will involve decisions by the special judicial body being set up in Ramsey County, along with appeals to both the Minnesota and the US Supreme Court,” says Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

The margin separating the two contestants after the recount is miniscule, given the nearly 3 million cast, but Professor Jacobs notes that the number of ballots that are being challenged in the lawsuits is also quite small, making it unlikely that Mr. Coleman will garner many new votes. “I’m struggling to see how this pans out for Senator Coleman,” says Jacobs. “It feels a bit like a Greek tragedy, where you know the outcome.”

At one point, Coleman’s prospects seemed brighter. Immediately after the election, he declared victory with an unofficial lead of 725 votes and urged Franken, the former “Saturday Night Live” comedian, to forego a recount.

But through the painstaking recount process, in which every vote was examined in the presence of campaign representatives, and some 900 wrongly rejected absentee ballots were counted, more Franken votes surfaced.

Now, Coleman’s challenges are focusing on specific groups of ballots, including 654 absentee ballots that his campaign believes were improperly rejected, 150 votes that were allegedly double-counted, and 133 lost ballots that were still included in the recount.

But if those 654 absentee ballots – which have already been examined and rejected several times – are included, that might allow other absentee ballots to be reconsidered. Any of the pools of contested ballots, moreover, would yield votes for both contestants.

“The problem for Coleman at this point is that the burden of proof is on him,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Still, he notes, “the court can look at all sorts of controversies that the canvassing board could not.”

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page is deciding how to select a three-judge panel that will rule on the challenges. The panel will have the power to conduct further investigations and reexamine all evidence.

For now, Franken “is spending his time getting ready to serve as soon as he’s sworn in,” says Andy Barr, a campaign spokesman, dismissing Coleman’s lawsuit as “utterly meritless.”

Coleman’s campaign didn’t return calls, but in a statement after the recount tally was certified, he said, “we are filing this contest to be absolutely sure that every valid vote was counted and no one’s vote was counted more than anyone else’s.”

Despite the razor-thin vote margin, the recount has been relatively free of charges of partisanship or corruption.

“There wasn’t a sense of a Katherine Harris moment,” says Jacobs, referring to the controversial secretary of state in Florida’s 2000 presidential election recount.

But already, the recount has sparked calls for reform. Some want runoff elections to be held in close races, while others are calling for better training of election officials and ways to clarify and simplify the balloting and counting processes.

“The tragedy of this whole thing is that random error produces a senator. Whoever wins is an accident,” says Schier. “You don’t want a system where something like this can happen.”

But as prolonged and frustrating as the process has been, Jacobs notes, “this has been the mother of all teaching moments about democracy and the importance of voting.”

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