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Ballot security tops Senate candidates' minds

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ST. PAUL - Republican Senator Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken agree ballots need to be preserved for a statewide recount in their U.S. Senate race, but their campaigns struggled to work out details.

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As their race narrowed to a 206-vote margin late Monday afternoon, out of nearly 2.9 million votes cast, the campaigns discussed how to keep ballots secure. That is important because every one of those ballots will be examined by elections officials during a statewide recount beginning next week.

The thin margin mandates a recount, which likely will last past mid-December. The contest could end up in court.

Absentee ballots and those cast on Election Day are being stored in city and county facilities across the state so they can be counted manually after the state Canvassing Board officially calls for a recount, expected to happen next Monday.

How to make sure those ballots are safe, and not altered, dominated the campaigns Sunday and Monday. The campaigns' lawyers Monday afternoon continued to work on specific wording, but there was at least a general agreement to ask for more security around ballots.

"We are very strongly supportive of securing the ballots," Franken spokesman Andy Barr said.

However, he added, the legal document being negotiated does not need to be as specific as Coleman wants. "Different counties have different needs; different counties have different capacities."

"There have been some troubling reports," Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty said he looked into whether he can get involved, but lawyers told him that he has no legal authority.

"Each county has a little different version of what it means to be 'secure,'" Pawlenty told reporters Monday.

Ballots are held in facilities ranging from a safe to a locked attic room.

Pawlenty said he especially wonders about an election worker who carried absentee ballots around in a car when they were supposed to be counted, as well as Franken and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama each getting 100 votes more in Mountain Iron than were reported election night.

Coleman's campaign has sent volunteers to watch rooms containing ballots in some counties.

The secretary of state's office spokesman said a new ballot-security effort is not needed.

"Minnesota law clearly spells out all procedures covering security of ballots and other election materials," John Aiken said. "These laws have been carefully executed by Minnesota's county and local election officials who have diligently safeguarded all election materials."

Aiken said the office already has reminded local elections officials twice of ballot security laws.

On Monday, county canvassing boards met to approve the pre-recount vote totals.

Some county auditors may take advantage of a state law to transfer recount duties.

Stevens County Auditor Neil Wiese is one of them.

"I'm going to pass that on to some other poor devil," Wiese said.

Auditors have the option to pass responsibility for a recount on to another county or the state. For example, for a primary election recount in a Supreme Court race this fall, Wiese sent his county's ballots to Chippewa County.

Smaller counties don't have the staff time to devote, he said.

"If you have a mistake, there it is; it happens," Wiese said. "But if you get a situation where they get on election judges as if they did something wrong, pretty soon you won't have any."

Coleman declared victory the morning after the election, when he led by 425 votes. But since then, the margin has been dwindling.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, the state's top elections official, said it is normal for vote totals to change in the days following an election as officials find tallying mistakes.

However, Coleman's campaign says it is suspicious that most votes that are found favor Franken.

During the weekend, the Coleman campaign lost an attempt to keep 32 Hennepin County absentee ballots from being counted. The campaign went to court, saying the ballots were in Minneapolis Elections Director Cynthia Reichert's car trunk from Election Day through Friday.

Despite Coleman's lawyers saying that state law required all ballots to be counted on Election Day, a judge allowed the ballots to be counted.

• • •

The Morris Sun Tribune contributed to this story.

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