Minn. Senate trial hinges on voter mistakes

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) âÄî Peter DeMuth put his initials on his absentee ballot application, but he signed his full name on the ballot envelope. In Minnesota, that was enough to get his vote for Republican Norm Coleman thrown out. Should such small errors be enough to exclude ballots from the U.S. Senate race in which Democrat Al Franken leads Coleman by 225 votes? Predictably, Franken says yes, and Coleman says no. Late Friday, the three judges hearing Coleman’s recount lawsuit excluded many of the error-plagued ballots Coleman hoped would be counted. But there are still as many as 3,500 rejected absentee ballots in play, including the one cast by DeMuth. With their decision to limit the categories of rejected ballots they’ll consider, the trial is expected to gain momentum after crawling through its first three weeks, consumed mostly with extracting trivial details from large piles of specific ballots. “I want my vote counted,” DeMuth, a North Dakota State University student from the Minneapolis suburbs, said on the witness stand a few days ago. Attorneys for Coleman, the incumbent, want the judges to take a liberal view of whether rejected ballots like DeMuth’s should be counted. They say thousands of voters like him were disqualified for harmless errors, but that thousands of other absentee voters who made identical mistakes weren’t penalized because the rules were enforced differently from county to county. “We’re trying to get a consistency in how these ballots are looked at and how they’re evaluated,” Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg told the judges. “You’re the panel. We want it to be your eyes.” Franken’s attorneys have at times seemed almost apologetic in arguing to exclude ballots like DeMuth’s. Their message: We may not like it, but it’s the law. “This is not about whether I like the laws of Minnesota when it comes to absentee ballots,” Franken attorney Marc Elias said. “If the Minnesota Legislature wants to lower the barriers to absentee voting, that’s something I would wholeheartedly endorse.” Elias said Minnesota’s current absentee ballot standards are among the strictest in the country. Unlike most states, Minnesota’s law regards absentee voting not as an alternative to in-person voting but as an option only for voters who can’t make it to the polls on Election Day. In addition, absentee voters face several legal requirements: they must sign a ballot application and the ballot envelope, and the signatures must match; their name and address on the envelope must match the voter rolls; they must be registered voters; and they can’t go on to vote on Election Day. People who vote absentee also are required to sign their ballot in the presence of a witness who is also a registered Minnesota voter. Franken’s attorneys say it doesn’t really matter if enforcement of those rules varied somewhat from county to county. DeMuth decided to vote absentee because voting in person on Election Day would have meant driving 250 miles from his school in Fargo, N.D., to Plymouth, in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, which is still his legal residence. He testified that he applied for his absentee ballot online in early October, and initialed the application on his computer. He got his absentee ballot a few days later and filled it in, then signed his full name to the envelope. The city clerk in Plymouth decided his signature on the envelope and initials on the application didn’t match, and rejected DeMuth’s ballot. Voters are supposed to be notified of rejections, but DeMuth said he didn’t find out until shortly before the trial started, when the Coleman campaign called people on a list of rejected absentee voters and asked who they voted for. A number of voters in similar circumstances have testified for Coleman during the Senate trial, most acknowledging their mistakes but asking that their votes be counted anyway. Kelton and Marcella Adams, retirees from Hollywood Township, west of the Twin Cities, decided to vote absentee because he planned to undergo knee replacement surgery at the end of October. Their ballots were rejected because the address given by their witness âÄî their daughter âÄî didn’t match her address in the voter registry. “She moved from Carver County to McLeod County, and we didn’t realize she had to register again at her new address,” Kelton Adams testified. Coleman says the Adams’ votes should be counted; Franken says no. Under the judges’ ruling late Friday, the Adams’ ballots appeared to remain in play. Even if the judges agree with Coleman that thousands more ballots should be counted, it’s no guarantee that he could overcome Franken’s 225-vote lead. The judges have already ordered that 23 rejected ballots cast by Franken supporters be counted, which will put his lead at almost 250. And Franken’s attorneys say that if the judges do decide to let in some or all of the ballots Coleman wants, Franken would produce his own list of previously rejected ballots that fall into those same categories.