Lawyers in Senate trial work to narrow case

Judges and lawyers met for less than 20 minutes Monday.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) âÄî The Minnesota Senate trial kicked off its fourth week Monday with talk of progress from both sides, but major disputes still hanging over how many rejected absentee ballots should get counted. Republican Norm Coleman says there’s still up to 3,500 rejected absentee ballots that should be counted, while Democrat Al Franken says it should be more like 700 to 1,000. Coleman would benefit from a higher number because it gives him more ground from which to make up Franken’s 225-vote lead. A ruling late Friday from the trial’s three-judge panel trimmed by 12 categories the types of rejected ballots that could still be counted, striking more than 1,000 ballots from Coleman’s wish list. Lawyers for both candidates expressed hope this would “streamline” the trial, in the words of Coleman’s attorney Ben Ginsberg. But Ginsberg also said Monday that Coleman would ask the judges to reconsider portions of the recent ruling. Ginsberg said the ruling is contradictory, arguing that it excludes at least 100 ballots from consideration even though ones rejected for similar reasons were later allowed in either by the state Canvassing Board or by the judges themselves in a previous order. “There is a quandary when there is a court order that says some of the ballots that were counted … are now illegal votes under Minnesota law, and that is a quandary that we would like to address with the court,” Ginsberg said. Of the 100 or so absentee ballots now flagged by Coleman, most were rejected on Election Day by county officials who later flagged them as wrongly rejected and forwarded them to the state Canvassing Board for consideration by its members and both campaigns. Ultimately, the Canvassing Board and the campaigns decided that 933 absentee ballots had been wrongly rejected and counted them. The judges also issued an order earlier in the trial that ordered the eventual counting of 24 rejected ballots, and Ginsberg said a few of those would also fall under the 12 discarded categories. A common type of rejected ballot to receive the unequal treatment alleged by Coleman, Ginsberg said, are ballots where the voter failed to sign in all the proper places but only because an election official accidentally put a sticker over the signature instructions. But to remedy what Coleman is alleging, the judges would need to partially reverse their own order of just three days earlier. Ginsberg declined to speculate if their failure to do so would give Coleman grounds for appeal to a federal court. Even as Coleman moved to keep larger numbers of uncounted absentees in play, Franken lawyer Marc Elias predicted that the judges’ most recent order would further shrink Coleman’s hoped-for list of 3,500 ballots in the trial’s near future. “I think it’s fair to say that’s their high-water mark,” Elias said. He predicted that the judges would ultimately find less than a third of those 3,500 meet the standard to be counted. Franken’s attorneys have estimated for some time that the trial would end with the counting of another 700 to 1,000 rejected votes. Even though the fields of ballots remained a moving target, there was a sense Monday that the recent ruling had given the trial new momentum. Courtroom action itself took only about 20 minutes Monday, but presiding Judge Elizabeth Hayden praised both legal teams for progress on agreements that could bring in ballot evidence more efficiently than has been seen so far. Also Monday, Franken made his first Minnesota appearance billed as “Senator-elect Franken.” His staff organized a series of public meetings with several Minnesota mayors to talk about economic challenges in their cities. He was meeting with groups of mayors in St. Paul, Duluth and Rochester on Monday and Tuesday. Ginsberg called Franken’s events “a cute media stunt.”