Senate trial focuses on absentee processing

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) âÄî Attorneys for Norm Coleman sought Friday to show that in the crush of absentee ballots submitted in the final days of his U.S. Senate race, elections judges sometimes made mistakes. Coleman wants a three-judge panel to reconsider thousands of rejected absentees that could be the key to him winning a second term. Democrat Al Franken leads Coleman, a Republican, by 225 votes after a statewide recount. Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky, under questioning from Coleman attorney John Rock, testified Friday that county election judges processed hundreds of ballots each day, with less than half a minute spent on each one. Minnesota’s second-most populous county had nearly 31,000 absentee ballots âÄî nearly a third more than during the 2004 presidential race âÄî and Mansky conceded that election judges made some mistakes in handling them. As Rock had Mansky examine ballot after ballot, he said that some ballots rejected for missing signatures actually had the signatures, although not in the right spot. And he testified that judges were too tough in some cases where they ruled that a signature on an absentee envelope didn’t match what the county had on file for the voter. Other ballots that were rejected for lack of a signature had mailing labels pasted over the instructions telling voters to sign, clearly a situation where it wasn’t fair to hold the voter responsible, he said. In other cases, absentee ballots were rejected because there wasn’t a date after a signature, or a driver’s license number was not included on a blank on the form. Mansky testified that neither of those is a valid reason for throwing out a ballot. Mansky explained that he’d instructed his election judges to work quickly when evaluating absentee ballots. But he said judges were instructed to err on the side of accepting ballots where possible. Mansky is an acknowledged expert on Minnesota election law, having worked on local and state elections since 1984. When asked Friday how many recounts he had been part of, he said there were too many to remember. “I cannot recount the number of recounts I have been part of,” he said, getting a laugh from the judges and the legal teams of both campaigns. Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg explained the strategy court during a recess. “What we are trying to do is educate the judges about the types of problems that are out there,” he said. Attorneys for Franken were scheduled to question Mansky on Monday. For the most part, the problematic ballots Coleman’s team presented to Mansky were not among those that were later opened and added to the race during the statewide recount. Election officials around the state identified more than 1,000 such rejected absentees. Both the Coleman and Franken campaigns had a say in which rejected absentees should be counted during the recount, but Coleman in his lawsuit has asked the judges to look at many more. Franken opposes adding more than a few hundred additional absentees. Franken was not in court on Friday, but Coleman was in his usual spot next to his attorneys. He said the testimony over the past few days about improperly rejected ballots showed there were many votes yet to be counted. “This race is definitely not decided,” he said. Later Friday, the three-judge panel heard from lawyers for two groups of people who wanted their rejected absentee ballots counted. Minneapolis attorney Charles Nauen said his 61 clients had either filed documents answering questions raised by election judges or had already had their ballots identified by Minnesota counties as wrongly rejected. Nauen’s case was filed under the state’s “errors and omissions” statute, then referred to the panel by the state Supreme Court. Local officials have identified 13 of his clients’ ballots as being wrongly rejected, but Coleman’s campaign kept them out of the recount. While neither the Franken nor the Coleman campaign objected to counting those ballots, Coleman attorney Jim Langdon said the court should also order about 3,500 similarly rejected absentees to be counted. Bruce Kennedy, a Roseville attorney for seven rejected absentee voters, also asked the panel to order that their votes be counted. The court did not indicate when it might rule on the requests.