Still No Sign Of Winner In Minnesota Senate Race

Seven months after Election Day, there is still no official winner in the Minnesota Senate race. Minnesota's highest court is hearing the case of Coleman v. Franken and has yet to render a decision. Mark Zdechlik of Minnesota Public Radio offers his insight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

There is still no official winner in Minnesota's Senate race between Republican Norm Coleman, who was the incumbent, and Democrat Al Franken. For reasons that we'll let Mark Zdechlik of Minnesota Public Radio explain, there were hopes of an announcement today. Mark, why were we on senator alert today?

MARK ZDECHLIK: Well, Robert, every Thursday, the Minnesota Supreme Court at 10 in the morning releases its opinions on whatever cases it has before it that it's ready to issue rulings on. This all really started last Wednesday when some reporters were speculating that the next day decisions would include the Coleman appeal, and it didn't come last Thursday as everybody knows. So, once again, Thursday rolls around and we're all waiting very expectantly at 10 a.m. for the rulings to come out and, once again, we were disappointed not to get them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Okay, bigger question, why more than seven months after Election Day has Minnesota been unable to settle on a winner?

ZDECHLIK: Well, a series of lawsuits, bottom line. The election ended, it was too close for a winner to be determined by Minnesota law. Senator Norm Coleman, the Republican, his margin of victory was within one-half of one percent, which required a recount. The recount took place, and in early January, a couple of days after Coleman's term officially ended, the recount was made official.

Senator Coleman then, without a job, decided to file a lawsuit challenging that recount that gave the advantage to Democrat Al Franken to the tune of 225 votes. Coleman did file a lawsuit. He lost that challenge. Franken's lead actually increased after some more absentee ballots that were rejected had been opened up. Franken's lead increased to 312.

And then after that was done, Norman Coleman appealed the decision of the three-judge panel that handled the lawsuit to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The high court in Minnesota heard the oral arguments in that case on June 1st and ended the court session saying a decision would be forthcoming, and we're still waiting - that was a little more than three weeks ago.

SIEGEL: Wheels of justice grind fine, but very, very slow, it seems, in this case. What are the substantive claims here in the Coleman appeal? That is, is he claiming that there were votes that were counted and shouldn't have been, or that there were votes that weren't counted and should've been?

ZDECHLIK: The bottom line is the Coleman side has maintained all along, ever since it fell behind in the tally, that in some places absentee ballots were rejected for reasons that they would not have been rejected in other places. So if you were voting by absentee ballot in one county and the witness that signed your absentee ballot packet was not a registered voter, some places in Minnesota, that ballot would not have been accepted, opened and counted. In other places it would've.

And the Coleman side maintains basically that whatever the lowest standard that happened anywhere in Minnesota turned out to be, other ballots in other places that were rejected that otherwise would've been accepted in that one place, should be opened and counted.

SIEGEL: And how many ballots are actually at stake in that argument?

ZDECHLIK: All told, there were about 12,000 rejected absentee ballots. Both campaigns all along have maintained that the vast majority of them were rejected for valid reasons. The Coleman campaign, says right now officially that it things about 4,000 rejected absentee ballots were wrongly rejected and therefore should be opened and included in the recount. And they have been expressing confidence all along, that if all the properly cast ballots, as they'll call them, were opened and counted, that Senator Coleman would prevail.

SIEGEL: And what does the Franken side say about those absentee ballots?

ZDECHLIK: The Franken side basically stipulated that the Coleman side did prove a handful of absentee ballots were wrongly rejected. But they claim that there were no systematic errors or problems with the way the election was conducted. And the three-judge panel that heard the appeal said that the election was conducted fairly and that Franken got more votes than Norman Coleman.

SIEGEL: Meanwhile, Minnesota has one United States senator. What are Al Franken and Norman Coleman doing all these months when neither one is being a U.S. senator?

ZDECHLIK: Well, Senator Coleman at the time - his term officially expired in early January - was announced that he was taking a job with the National Jewish Democratic Council. POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Coleman is serving as a consultant and strategic adviser to the Republican Jewish Coalition.

He's been keeping a fairly low profile since he filed the appeal with the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Al Franken has kept a very low profile since the oral arguments were heard on the 1st of June. He says he's been traveling back and forth between Minneapolis and Washington and getting regular briefings from Senate staffers about what's going on. He told me in an interview just a couple of days before the Minnesota Supreme Court oral arguments that he was putting his efforts towards making sure that when he is seated, as he believes he will be, he'll be ready to go.

SIEGEL: Mark Zdechlik of Minnesota Public Radio, thank you very much, Mark.

ZDECHLIK: My pleasure.

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Correction June 26, 2009

In his conversation with Robert Siegel, reporter Mark Zdechlik incorrectly said former Sen. Norm Coleman took a job with the National Jewish Democratic Council. In fact Coleman is serving as a consultant and strategic adviser to the Republican Jewish Coalition.

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