Now, we wait: Minn. Senate case in judges’ hands

Questions answered.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) âÄî After seven weeks of testimony, the lawsuit over Minnesota’s unfilled U.S. Senate seat is in the hands of a three-judge panel. Some questions and answers about the case: Q: When will there be a ruling? A: There’s no firm timetable, and the attorneys for both sides refuse to guess. The three judges âÄî Elizabeth Hayden of Stearns County, Kurt Marben of Pennington County and Denise Reilly of Hennepin County âÄî have mountains of evidence and witness testimony to pore over. The verdict could actually come in two phases. First, the judges could tell the parties which previously rejected absentee ballots they want opened and counted. If there are enough ballots in play to shift the outcome âÄî Democrat Al Franken leads Republican Norm Coleman by 225 votes âÄî they would have to wait to issue their final and most important declaration: Which party received the most legally cast votes and is entitled to the election certificate. Q: Where are the uncounted absentee ballots now? A: They’re in the custody of county auditors who oversee elections. Once the judges say which should count, they will likely will be shipped to St. Paul. To protect voter privacy, the ballots probably will be put in one big pile to avoid the possibility that a person’s identity and their vote will be linked. The process is expected to take at least a few days. Q: Why did it take seven weeks to get to this point? A: Because the two campaigns went through rejected ballots they want counted one by one. In some cases, voters were called in to vouch for the authenticity of the ballot envelope, examine their signature and verify that they only voted once. Local election officials also testified about the reasons for rejecting ballots, often on a case-by-case basis. Q: Was it all about absentee ballots? A: No. Coleman also tried to scrape votes from Franken’s column. He asked the judges to revoke votes for two reasons: A Minneapolis precinct where Franken walloped Coleman lost some ballots prior to the recount, leaving officials to rely on their Election Day count. Coleman says those ballots shouldn’t count because they can’t be physically examined. He also argues that there were more votes than voters in some precincts because of the way damaged ballots were handled, to the benefit of Franken. The Democrat’s lawyers disagreed with both arguments and said Coleman failed to prove his theory on the second. Q: Does Coleman have a shot? A: The odds seem long, but not impossible. It all depends on how many new absentee ballots get into the count and where they’re from. Coleman has pushed to add hundreds, mostly from areas where he soundly defeated Franken in the election. Coleman’s advisers insist they can make up the deficit, and they point to the recount as evidence. When the state Canvassing Board opened 933 absentee ballots in January, Franken was able to boost his lead by 175 votes, an impressive gain from a relatively small stack. Q: What about Franken’s vote total? A: It will change. Already, the judges have given clearance to 35 Franken supporters who sued separately to have their ballots opened and another 12 ballots Franken pushed for were accepted, too. His lawyers say they have proven during trial that 252 additional rejections should be overturned by the court. Franken also claims he should get credit for 52 ballots that were lost between the election and the recount in precincts around the state, which are distinct from the lost ballots from Minneapolis. Q: Is this trial the final word? A: That’s up to the loser, who has the right to appeal his case to the Minnesota Supreme Court. There’s also the possibility of a new lawsuit in federal court. Either could climb the ladder to the U.S. Supreme Court. And the U.S. Senate has the power to weigh in on the result when it comes time to seat the winner. Q: Will the trial winner take the seat while the case plays out? A: Probably not. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled last week that the governor and secretary of state can’t issue an election certificate while the matter is before state courts. It’s not entirely clear whether that delay involves the U.S. Supreme Court if it is called upon to review a state high court decision. Some legal scholars believe a certificate could be issued if the loser starts a new case in federal court. Regardless, there could be a fight on the Senate floor if one party feels wronged by the outcome.