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First recount day reported mostly smooth; Coleman leads

ST. PAUL - A man who knows the subject liked what he saw Wednesday as Minnesotans began recounting 2.9 million U.S. Senate election ballots.

"They're going as smoothly as you could anticipate when you're first starting a process that is new to everybody involved," Wesley Kliner, who was part of the 2000 presidential recount in Florida, said while watching the process in Otter Tail County.

The comment from the Tennessee attorney, working for Norm Coleman's campaign, was echoed throughout Minnesota as the historic recount began.

A mostly smooth first day was reported Wednesday, the beginning of a recount process expected to take more than two weeks.

The secretary of state's office Wednesday night released tallies with 15.5 percent of the ballots recounted that show Coleman led by 14,715 votes over challenger Al Franken. However, many of the large counties where the recount will take days are traditional Democratic strongholds, so the race should tighten.

Statewide, the recount gave Republican Coleman 70 fewer votes in the same precincts and Franken 27 fewer, compared to what was reported election night. Some numbers listed on the secretary of state's Web site were slightly different from numbers announced at recount sites.

The Coleman campaign challenged 115 Franken ballots, while Franken recount observers challenged 106 Coleman votes. Those ballots will be examined by a state board next month to determine who voters intended to pick.

Most counties reported little change from their election-night tallies.

The recount went smoothly overall in Douglas County, where four ballots were challenged because of questions about whether a candidate's oval was correctly marked. Most precincts' votes matched those reported election night.

However, in the St. Louis County precincts counted Wednesday, Democrat Franken gained 24 votes over those counted earlier in the heavily Democratic-Farmer-Laborite area and Coleman lost one.

The 25-vote net gain for Franken was due mostly to an older type of voting machine used on the Iron Range that does not always read faint lines.

The St. Louis vote swing appeared to be the biggest change on the first day of the recount.

Political observers across the country were watching as hundreds of election workers began counting every one of the 2.9 million ballots individually to determine who wins the Senate race.

Going into the automatic recount, incumbent Coleman held a 215-vote lead over Franken. That narrow margin, close enough to trigger a state-mandated recount, makes it the closest Senate race in Minnesota history.

At stake, if Franken can win and a Democratic Georgia candidate can take a new election there, is a Senate majority that can overcome any Republican filibuster attempt.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said a few recount delays were reported when dealing with overseas ballots, but few other issues were heard.

"This is Day 1, a sort of learn-how-to-do-it day," he said.

While things appeared to be running generally smoothly, Ritchie said, the nasty Senate campaign was carrying over to a certain extent.

"The mood is weird, but not too bad," said Ritchie, the top state elections official. "There is a lot of tension."

About half of the 107 recount sites began work Wednesday. Twenty-eight other sites will begin today, with others starting the count as late as Dec. 3.

No winner is expected until the last half of December, with the possibility that court action will delay a decision even more.

Besides simply recounting the ballots, campaign observers were looking for ballots that may have been counted wrong by machines or that machines rejected all together. State law requires a ballot to be counted if the voter's intent can be determined.

Both campaigns were challenging some local election workers' decisions on that front, sending the ballots to the state Canvassing Board, which will decide the winning candidate starting Dec. 16.

Ritchie said there will be "a relatively small number of challenges," but out of 2.9 million votes, even a small number can sway the election.

As the recount started, Franken Wednesday won a court ruling ordering Ramsey County to turn over data on voters whose absentee ballots were rejected. The campaign wants improperly rejected absentee ballots included in the recount. The state Canvassing Board has not decided if that will happen.

Several smaller counties completed their recount work Wednesday.

One of the early finishers, Norman, reported no challenged ballots and the same vote total as recorded election night.

"It went better than I could ever have imagined," said Auditor Rick Munter, whose team finished at 12:45 p.m. "I didn't expect to be out of here without any challenged ballots."

While the 2,910 who voted in Norman make it one of the smallest counties, eight recount stations were set up in one of the bigger counties, the Dakota County Judicial Center in Hastings, where 225,000 ballots would be counted.

A New York Times photographer recorded the Hastings recount, in a former cafeteria where a crime scene tape separated the public from recount workers.

Nobles County, which completed its recount, ended up awarding one more vote to Coleman. Five ballots were challenged.

Hubbard County's recount ended with Coleman picking up a trio of votes over the earlier tally.

In Hubbard County, campaign observers were easy to identify. Franken's team was mostly young men in jeans and plaid shirts. The Coleman campaign was mostly well-dressed senior citizens.

In Bemidji, one side didn't talk, but the other did. When approached by a reporter, a Franken supporter showed a slip of paper indicating a gag order by the campaign, referring all questions to Franken headquarters in St. Paul.

"We've got six here now and about 30 volunteers," said former Rep. Doug Fuller, R-Bemidji, who with Washington, D.C., attorney Andrew Miller, were serving as leads for the Coleman campaign.


The recount had barely started in Otter Tail County when the process came to a halt. The issue: observers from both campaigns wanted to see the back of the ballots being counted to determine if there were any identifying marks. Rules say any marks that would identify a voter renders an entire ballot invalid.

Otter Tail County Auditor Wayne Stein checked with the secretary of state's office and was told to allow observers to see both sides of ballots.

So many Franken observers showed up at the Clay County Courthouse that they discussed sending some to nearby Fergus Falls. No fewer than 12 election observers were there for Franken, with at least four for Coleman.

Clay County workers plowed through about 40 percent of their 29,344 ballots. Three votes for Coleman and one for Franken were challenged.

In St. Louis County, with 187 precincts, it is expected to take at least five days for county auditor's employees to count each ballot. The recount there produced one of the biggest numbers of challenged ballots in the state, 28 challenged by Coleman campaign and 18 by Franken's people.

About 20 partisan and non-partisan observers sat inside the Washington County Government Center's conference room in Stillwater as election officials started the recount of about 140,000 ballots.

Molly O'Rourke, a department administrator for Washington County, said the county is scheduled to finish the recount on Saturday, but hopes to complete the counting by Friday.

Kandiyohi County counters gave Franken two extra votes.

Coleman lost two votes and Franken one in a Willmar recount, and five ballots were challenged.

City Clerk Kevin Halliday, who was in charge, said the challenges were quite reasonable.

"Nothing frivolous and not exactly in tune with what our judges thought, but that's OK,'' Halliday said. "That's what the state Board of Canvass will do when they look at it."

State Capitol Bureau reporter Scott Wente and reporters from The Bemidji Pioneer, West Central Tribune, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Duluth News Tribune, Stillwater Courier, Park Rapids Enterprise Bulletin, Hastings Star-Gazette, Alexandria Echo Press, Worthington Daily Globe and Grand Forks Herald 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.