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Judges, Ritchie to settle ballot disputes

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie says ballots that one Senate campaign or the other challenge will be put into a separate pile during a recount of the race that is to begin next week. The recount will involve looking individually at each one of the nearly 3 million ballots from the Nov. 4 election. staff photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL - Two Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican Gov Tim Pawlenty, two District Court judges and the Democratic secretary of state comprise a board that could decide who becomes Minnesota's next U.S. senator.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie announced on Wednesday who will be on the state Canvassing Board, which will decide who many Minnesota voters intended to support for the Senate.

Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman on Wednesday continued to hold a 206-vote lead over Democratic challenger Al Franken, close enough to force a state-mandated hand recount of each of the 2.92 million ballots cast last week. The Canvassing Board likely will order a recount on Tuesday, prompting many counties to begin sorting through ballots the next day.

A recount will stretch will into December, and court action could follow, further delaying a decision on the race.

Ritchie asked Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin to name two people each to the board. They appointed themselves and each appointed another jurist.

Both from the Supreme Court have strong Republican ties.

Pawlenty named Magnuson, a former law colleague, to lead the state's high court earlier this year.

Magnuson is joined on the Canvassing Board by fellow Justice G. Barry Anderson, who Pawlenty appointed to the Supreme Court in 2004. At one point, he was a Republican Party attorney.

Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin, first elected judge in 1986, picked herself and Assistant Chief Judge Edward Cleary, who then-Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed to the bench in 2002.

Ritchie is overseeing his first statewide general election this year since being elected in 2006.

Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak said he has confidence in Ritchie's election staff and liked the jurists name to the board, but is less positive about Ritchie himself.

"I feel very positive about the people who were selected," Knaak said.

Franken's campaign was not so happy. Spokesman Andy Barr called Magnuson and Anderson "two partisan Republican Supreme Court justices."

"Both were named to the Supreme Court by Gov. Pawlenty, who has been an active surrogate for the Coleman campaign, going on television to spread false claims of foul play in an effort to besmirch our state's good reputation and cast doubt on our electoral process," Barr said.

Not since 1962, when a governor's election took weeks to decide, have there been so many eyes on a Minnesota recount.

The Coleman and Franken campaigns each are fielding hundreds of volunteers and paid staff, including lawyers for most, if not all, of the 100-plus sites where ballots will be recounted.

Some lawyers are volunteers and others will be paid, Knaak said. Coleman's campaign is hearing from lawyers from across the country who want to help.

"We have hundreds of people," Knaak said, and the campaign is seeking hundreds more.

The campaigns are seeking more donations, on top of an estimated $40 million they spent during the pre-election campaign.

"Even if you contributed the legal maximum during the campaign (thank you!), you can give up to another $2,300 to our recount fund," Barr wrote to supporters Wednesday. "And your contribution is badly needed. The state pays for the recount itself, but we need to keep paying the electric bill, the phone bill, the Internet bill (very important) and our terrific (if a bit sleep-deprived) staff."

Counties and the state's largest cities will handle the recount. Most will begin Wednesday. However, some counties - including Goodhue and Becker - will not begin recounting ballots until Nov. 24.

State Elections Director Gary Poser said seven or eight counties are considering not conducting recounts themselves. State law allows counties to farm out recounting duties to other counties or the secretary of state's office.

Ritchie's goal is for every county to finish recounts by Dec. 6.

Local elections officials will examine each of the 2.92 million ballots and put it in one of four piles:

  • For Franken.
  • For Coleman.
  • For another candidate, no vote in the race or impossible to determine who the voter wanted.
  • Disputed ballots, which can be sent there by either campaign.

    Disputed ballots will be sent to the state Canvassing Board to determine each voter's intention.

    "It is rare that you cannot tell the intent of the voter," Ritchie said.

    Those Canvassing Board decisions about disputed ballots could decide the tight election. Ritchie said he has no idea how many ballots may be disputed, but the campaigns have no limit on how many they can challenge.

    The process is open to the public to watch.

    Ritchie said he will try to report each day about how many votes each candidate receives, as well as how many ballots are disputed.

    Also Wednesday, a liberal-leaning group requested the FBI's Minneapolis office and a U.S. Senate ethics panel investigate allegations that a wealthy Coleman friend tried to funnel $75,000 of corporate money to the senator through his wife's employer.

    Alliance for a Better Minnesota Executive Director Denise Cardinal called the allegations serious and said "we need to know what actually happened."

    Coleman, who has denied the allegations, welcomed the investigations, saying any connection between those behind the lawsuits and "my political opponents" should be explored.

    "The fact that a United States senator is being used as a tool of extortion by private parties should be of concern to all Minnesotans," Coleman said in a statement.

    State Capitol reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

  • Don Davis
    Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.