Hennepin County now in Senate race gaze

However, Minneapolis’ top election official isn’t expected to testify until next week.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) âÄî Election officials from Minnesota’s most populous county moved to the witness stand Thursday as the trial over the disputed U.S. Senate race saw its most productive day. The focus on Hennepin County brought Republican Norm Coleman’s election lawsuit geographically closer to a critical juncture âÄî an examination of vote counting in the city of Minneapolis. Still, his lawyers aren’t planning to summon the Minneapolis top election official to court until next week at the earliest. Attorneys for Coleman and Democrat Al Franken questioned city clerks from Bloomington, Champlin, Eden Prairie, Edina and Minnetonka about their handling of absentee ballots, particularly those they declined to count because of apparent deficiencies. Thousands of absentee ballots statewide were rejected because of problems with voter registration, signature mismatches and witness qualifications. Eventually the case’s three judges will decide which unopened ballots to include. Coleman wants to add thousands more votes to the race tally; Franken’s lawyers will file papers Friday that outline how many ballots his campaign believes should be opened. The number ruled eligible for counting will prove vital because Franken held a bare 225-vote lead after a statewide recount of almost 3 million ballots. Each witness Thursday fielded questions about a handful of absentee ballots highlighted by the attorneys. The clerks defended the rejections in some cases and said in other cases they might have counted them in retrospect. Coleman’s lawyers sought to use the city clerk testimony to show that ballot standards were inconsistently applied. Franken’s team emphasized in its cross-examination the painstaking steps officials took to determine which ballots to deem eligible. Franken lawyer Marc Elias said some ballots were rejected for multiple reasons, but not all were listed on ballots introduced as evidence. “Every ballot kind of tells its own story,” Elias said, adding the court needs to know the full story before ruling on them. The judicial panel also heard testimony from chief elections officers representing Cass, Lyon, Meeker, Olmsted and Steele counties. It was a pace unseen so far in the weekslong trial, drawing in-court praise from one of the judges, Denise Reilly. Outside court, Coleman lawyer Ben Ginsberg again criticized a judicial order from a week ago that limits the types of uncounted ballots the panel will ultimately consider. He said it leaves open the possibility that similarly situated voters are treated differently. The ruling could be the foundation for a Coleman appeal if he loses the lawsuit. Ginsberg said the court “will face a conundrum” when it comes time to sign off on the race. “It’s up to the court to deal with the inconsistencies,” he said. For instance, he said only 22 of 87 counties bothered to investigate whether an absentee voter’s witness was properly registered on their own, a requirement under state law. That meant 460 ballots were rejected around the state for that reason while the same type of ballots elsewhere were probably passed through unchecked. “There are now more illegal votes in the current count than Al Franken’s erstwhile lead,” Ginsberg said. A resolution to the case could be a ways off. The trial won’t reach its crescendo until Minneapolis elections chief Cindy Reichert is called to the stand. Questioning of Reichert is expected to cover a lot of ground. Coleman’s lawsuit takes issue with the use of election night totals to make up for 133 ballots city officials said were lost, and the case claims dozens of voters had more than one ballot counted. Franken has far more votes at stake than Coleman in both areas.