Minneapolis - A recount watchdog for Norm Coleman flagged a ballot because thevoter put a check next to Al Franken's name instead of blacking inthe oval. A Franken monitor challenged an apparent vote for Colemanbecause Franken's name was also marked. And representatives of bothmen invoked challenges because of marks elsewhere on the ballotthat could make them identifiable.
The pile of disputed ballots in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race isgrowing at a pace sure to dwarf the 215-vote margin prior to therecount, making it tough to tell whether Coleman, the Republicanincumbent, or Franken, his Democratic challenger, is gaining anedge as the recount progresses.
After two days of counting, results reported Thursday to thesecretary of state showed Coleman's advantage over Franken fading.Compared with pre-recount figures, Franken trails Coleman by 129votes.
Still, there are almost 60 percent of ballots outstanding aspart of the 2.9 million ballots being reviewed. Thirty-five ofMinnesota's 87 counties told the state they had finished theircounts.
As of Thursday, both candidates had lost votes in numerouscounties because of challenged ballots. If that continues, it willlikely mean a cliffhanger until the state canvassing board meetsbeginning Dec. 16 to rule on challenged ballots.
"My guess is the outcome will be determined by the challengedballots," Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann said as therecount entered its second day. "The difference between the twocandidates at the end of this process will be less than the totalnumber of challenged ballots."
Through two days, the reported total of challenges hit 734between the two. Franken has challenged slightly more than Coleman.More than a third of the challenges came in two counties regardedas Democratic strongholds -- Hennepin and St. Louis.
Whether most of those challenges are upheld by the canvassingboard is a separate matter. Several county auditors said most theysaw were questionable at best.
"In my mind -- I can only say in my mind -- it was prettyobvious what the voter's intent was with almost all of the ballotsthey challenged," said Sam Modderman, the auditor in KandiyohiCounty, where Coleman lost four votes and Franken held even.
Pipestone County Auditor Joyce Steinhoff said she saw severalchallenges she thought were frivolous, but she decided not to pushback too hard. "I'd rather have it overruled by the canvassingboard, then have them say I deprived them of their right tochallenge," she said.
In Pipestone, which started and finished its recount Wednesday,Franken lost 10 votes and Coleman lost 5.
County officials have the power to question challenges theyconsider frivolous, but Gelbmann said the secretary of state'soffice has directed them to give monitors wide latitude to insistsuch ballots get sent to the canvassing board anyway.
Lawyers from both campaigns said Thursday it was too early toassess the significance of the challenge pile. Both questionedwhether the other had gone too far in some cases.
"We have seen examples of challenges that clearly arenon-meritorious and will not be upheld by the canvassing board.Where that winds up going, we'll see," said Franken's legal chief,Marc Elias. "Maybe the Coleman campaign was a little overexuberanton Day One."
Coleman's top lawyer, Fritz Knaak, said he expected the numberof challenges to be greater. Still, he's on the lookout for"no-brainer Coleman votes" that are winding up in the disputedstack.
"We see some of their challenges and shrug and say `Where didthat come from?"' Knaak said.
The campaigns get copies of the challenged ballots and they canlift their hold on a ballot being counted if they have secondthoughts.
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