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County prepares for recount

Close to 80 percent of the eligible voters in Dakota County cast their ballots last week. That's a high total, just a bit more than voter turnout statewide. That means more than 225,000 ballots were automatically tabulated at the end of Election Day.

Now those ballots will be counted by hand beginning next week as part of the recount in the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman, Republican, and challenger Al Franken, Democrat.

"We consider ourselves agents of the Secretary of State's office," said Dakota County Auditor Joel Beckman. "That process began months ago when the process began for this year's election and continued this week with the official canvassing and other post-election procedures. It continues next week with the recount."

The ballots, which will be stored until the next election, are in a very secure area of the county's administrative service center in Hastings, Beckman said. Each of the county's 141 precincts has its own documents, with individual races from the federal right down to the local level, all marked.

"We review the ballots at a recount," Beckman said. "That means each is counted manually."

That counting is done at the administrative center in Hastings, with election judges and observers from the parties.

"This is a partisan ballot and as such, we must have observers," Beckman said. "As each ballot is checked, it can be challenged."

But Beckman cautioned ballots cannot be challenged for a frivolous reason.

While the ballots indicate the voter must fill in the circle by the candidate's name, some ballots may have the circle circled instead. That is a clear indication of who the voter's choice is in that race.

Sometimes, the marking is not clear, and that's when there may be a challenge. All ballots challenged in Dakota County are placed in a separate stack and into an envelope. They are forwarded to the Secretary of State's office for resolution.

On Nov. 10, the Dakota County Canvassing Board met and confirmed the vote totals from last week's election. Beckman, Dakota County Board of Commissioners Chair Nancy Schouweiler (who was not up for re-election) and three other individuals met as the canvassing board. Each of the five pulls one of the 141 precinct envelopes and double-checks the results and numbers.

What is then prepared by Beckman's office is a report -- 352 pages in length -- detailing all the races, by precinct, in the county. A Dakota County abstract -- this one 31 pages long -- is also submitted to the Secretary of State's office.

All of the state's 87 counties had to submit their canvassing reports by midnight Monday, Nov. 10. Dakota County met its deadline.

Between now and the start of the recount next week, Beckman's office is completing a post-election review. Ballots from four precincts throughout the county are being hand-counted. The races for president, senate and house are being counted. It is part of the process to verify results.

The state hopes that the senate race recount will be completed by the middle of December. Beckman refuses to put a definite timeline on this county's recount.

"We start after the state canvassing board meets, which is Wednesday, Nov. 18," he said. " And I don't say it will be fast, but it will be thorough."

And it seems to be working.

"Historically, our counts have been accurate," he said.