Senate Race Results Still Close In Minnesota

A winner is supposed to have been declared already in the last U.S. Senate race to be decided. The too-close-to-call contest in Minnesota is between GOP incumbent Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken. Instead, it looks like the new year will begin with the contest unresolved.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Something that still cannot be predicted is the winner of the U.S. Senate race in Minnesota. The contest between Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken is still too close call, and now, it looks like the contest will be unresolved when the New Year begins. As NPR's David Welna reports from St. Paul, it's come down to recounting some creative ballots and votes that got left out the first time.

DAVID WELNA: Over the last three days, two Supreme Court justices, two district judges and Minnesota's secretary of State have been pouring over hundreds of ballots, their votes challenged by either the Franken or the Coleman campaigns in a statewide recount. On Election Day, Coleman came out only a couple of hundred votes ahead of Franken out of nearly three million votes cast. So, every ballot the State Canvassing Board looks at could be the one that decides the election. The scrutiny's had its absurd moments, such as when Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and District Court Judge Kathleen Gearin examined the ballot with a tiny dot in the oval next to Al Franken's name.

Chief Justice ERIC MAGNUSON (Chief Justice, Minnesota Supreme Court): It's the only mark on here, other than Mickey Mouse being written in.

Judge KATHLEEN GEARIN (Second Judicial District Court, Minnesota): Why would you go in just to vote for Mickey Mouse, I guess?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Chief Justice MAGNUSON: I don't know; you could really like Mickey.

Judge GEARIN: Yeah. I suppose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELNA: Other write-ins on the challenged ballots include God, the flying spaghetti monster, Al Frankenstein and, in several cases, Chuck Norris. Canvassing Board Chair and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie says people of his state are finally getting their due.

Secretary MARK RITCHIE (Minnesota Department of State; Chair, Minnesota Canvassing Board): Well, I don't think Minnesotans get as much credit for how creative we are, as we should.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELNA: Senator Coleman's lead in the canvassing has dwindled from more than 300 votes early yesterday to just two votes by the end of the day. It's likely to keep dropping as the board wraps up its work today, looking at several hundred more ballots. This prompted a bold prediction from the Franken campaign's lead lawyer Marc Elias.

Mr. MARC ELIAS (Partner, Perkins Coie; General Counsel, Al Franken for Senate 2008): I'm confident, and I think that the trend that we've seen over the last couple of days has proved this out, that we are going to wind up winning this election. It's going to be close, but we're on the - we're going to win it; we're on the plus side.

WELNA: Tony Trimble, a lawyer for the Coleman campaign, had only this to say about Elias' prediction.

Mr. TONY TRIMBLE (Counsel, Norm Coleman 2008 Reelection Campaign): Well, I wouldn't have expected him to say that he would lose.

WELNA: The Franken campaign's pushing on another front to pick up votes. They posted testimonials on the Internet from voters who say their absentee ballots were mistakenly rejected, such as, 83-year-old John Robertas(ph) of New Brighton, Minnesota.

Mr. JOHN ROBERTAS (Resident, New Brighton, Minnesota): My ballot should have been counted, and for somebody to just arbitrarily discard my ballot because I didn't have a driver's license is just stupidity.

WELNA: Election experts estimate there could be as many as 1600 absentee ballots rejected in error. Last night, Minnesota's Supreme Court turned down a motion by the Coleman campaign to keep those ballots from being counted. Hamline University elections expert David Schultz says those votes will likely be decisive.

Dr. DAVID SCHULTZ (Election Law, Business Administration, Hamline University): If it stays very close, which it looks like it is at this point, the rejected absentees - that's the balance; that's going to decide who's going to win the Senate's race.

WELNA: Minnesota's high court gave the counties until December 31st to separate and report wrongly rejected ballots. Secretary of State Ritchie says even though senators are to be sworn in January 6th, he won't bow to pressures to hurry up and certify the election.

Sec. RITCHIE: I am not dictated by the consideration of the horserace or of the timing question. My only consideration is accuracy. When I sign my name and I ask these four others to sign their names, it's got to be right.

WELNA: That leaves elections expert Schultz for seeing two scenarios.

Dr. SHULTZ: Either the canvassing board may not have a decision by January 6th, or somebody has gone to court - that is, the loser - to prevent the canvassing board from declaring a winner.

WELNA: In which case, Schultz says, Minnesota's Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty could appoint a senator. But a senior Democratic Senate leadership aide says, that can't happen unless the Senate declares the seat vacant, which the Democratic majority is unlikely to do. David Welna, NPR News, St. Paul.

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