Eventful day ends week 5 of Sen. trial

Franken’s legal team is expected to begin its argument early next week.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) âÄî Week five of the Minnesota Senate trial closed Friday with the judges pondering whether to wipe out one part of Republican Norm Coleman’s case and dramatically broaden his lawsuit elsewhere. The testimony of a poll worker âÄî struck and then reinstated in successive days this week âÄî was thrown in doubt again after disclosures about additional written contacts she had with Coleman’s lawyers that were withheld from attorneys for Al Franken. The Democrat’s legal team asked the court to disqualify her and the entire Coleman claim of double-counted votes as a result. Later, the campaigns argued over a Coleman motion to reconsider all 287,000 absentee ballots cast last year. His lawyers say thousands of accepted ballots would be illegal under the standards the three-judge panel set forth in a Feb. 13 ruling. The maneuvering obscured a simple reality: Minnesota has officially gone a full eight weeks with a single senator. And it will go several more before either Franken or Coleman land the election certificate needed to fill the second seat. For now, Franken sits 225 votes ahead of Coleman, who is trying to make up that margin through addition and subtraction. He wants to include thousands of absentee ballots rejected by originally elections officials and take away votes that he contends erroneously went to Franken. Coleman’s lawyers are trying to prove that in the statewide recount some voters in Democratic-leaning Minneapolis had their ballots counted twice. Election judge Pamela Howell, an acknowledged Republican, had her testimony thrown out earlier this week because she had supplied written materials to Coleman’s team that were not given to Franken’s, a violation of trial rules. She was reinstated Thursday because the three-judge panel hearing the case deemed it an inadvertent error. Howell has testified that she knew of an error that could have caused some voters to have two ballots included in the race. The error involves the process for handling ballots that can’t be read by optical scanning machines, usually because they are damaged in some way or printed in a different format. In such cases, the ballots are copied by election judges, and both the original copies and the duplicates are tagged. According to Howell, some duplicated ballots weren’t marked properly, making them impossible to match up with original versions during the recount and creating the possibility both were included. When she resumed her testimony Friday, it emerged that she had had e-mail contacts with Coleman’s attorneys before and during the trial. The back-and-forth e-mails disclosed in court showed the efforts of Coleman’s team to keep information about Howell private for as long as possible. She also asked them about how she should prepare for court. “Will I be coached at all or enter the courtroom cold?” Howell wrote in a message that also asked whether she would be asked about written materials she gave to Coleman’s lawyers. A Coleman attorney replied that her statement wasn’t disclosed to the other side and said she should answer truthfully if asked about it. In seeking dismissal of that part of the case, Franken lawyer David Lillehaug said, “It is clear that her testimony was the linchpin for the Coleman original-duplicate ballot issue. That linchpin has been tainted, it has been corroded.” Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg told the court the e-mails were “blown a little bit out of proportion” and didn’t get at the substance of her testimony about the mishandling of ballots. In a letter to the judges this week, Coleman’s legal team said Howell’s evidence was “critical to the Contestant’s claim of double counting ballots in several precincts.” They have estimated that the issue involves about 100 of the votes in Franken’s lead. More votes ride on the treatment of absentee ballots. To date, the trial has focused mainly on absentee ballots the sides say were mistakenly rejected. But Coleman now wants the court to examine the outer envelopes for all accepted absentee ballots to determine whether they were properly filled out. Coleman lawyer Jim Langdon said the court has created a double standard with its strict interpretation of state law because not all local election officials followed it so precisely. “The law is the law is the law,” Langdon said. “That’s what it means now. That’s what it meant on Election Day. That’s what it meant before then.” Judge Kurt Marben pressed Langdon for a remedy. “How can we undo something once those ballots have been cast and counted?” Marben asked. The challenge is that accepted absentee ballots are separated from the outer envelopes and there is no way to reconnect the two now. One option, Langdon said, would be to reduce each man’s vote total in places where mistakes are discovered proportional to their vote percentage there. Franken lawyer Marc Elias said granting the motion would “reorder this case in its entirety.” “They wish to simply cast doubt on this process as they come to the conclusion of their case,” Elias said. The matter was taken under advisement.