Judges deal Coleman crippling blow in Minn. Senate race

6:13 AM, Apr 1, 2009   |    comments
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Republican Norm Coleman's lawyers geared up for an appeal Tuesday as a Minnesota court issued a ruling that crippled his chances of overtaking Democrat Al Franken in their extended Senate battle.

Taking a hard line, three judges hearing Coleman's lawsuit ordered further review of 400 unopened absentee ballots in the race, far fewer than the former Republican senator had asked be counted.

Within two hours of the ruling, Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg warned of an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Ginsberg argued that the special court's ruling tolerated differing standards from county to county between the general election and the recount. He said the small universe of remaining ballots makes it difficult for Coleman to erase Franken's current 225-vote lead.

"You never give up hope but it becomes a much longer shot," Ginsberg said. "It's still a mathematical possibility but it's probably akin to you winning your NCAA bracket pool at this point."

A lawyer for Franken, the ex-"Saturday Night Live" comic turned Democratic candidate, cheered the ruling but wouldn't speculate about the next steps. Attorney Marc Elias said he was not worried about others trying to stop Franken from being seated after appeals were exhausted.

"We're going to take this one step at a time," Elias said. "And I know there are a lot of things said by a lot of people with a lot of people from Washington, D.C. or Texas. What matters is what happens in the court in Minnesota and then in the Senate itself."

No one knows for sure exactly how the ballots will break, but they appear to favor Franken. Almost 150 names were on a ballot list Franken submitted; 125 were from Coleman's list; and 50 were on both. The rest didn't appear on either candidate's list.

The judges ordered that the ballots be examined on April 7. They said they needed to see original materials -- rather than the photocopies used in court -- to determine the validity of some ballots.

"To be clear," they wrote, "not every absentee ballot identified in this order will ultimately be opened and counted."

The judges' ruling was closest to what Franken wanted. As the case concluded, Coleman had argued to include 1,360 and asked the court to presume voters did things right.

"The Court carefully reviewed each absentee ballot on a ballot-by-ballot basis to determine whether sufficient individualized evidence had been presented that the voter complied with applicable federal and state law," the judges wrote.

The standard they applied was that the voter was properly registered, didn't vote in another way, had a qualified witness and used their geniune signature.

The district judges -- Hennepin County's Denise Reilly, Pennington County's Kurt Marben and Stearns County's Elizabeth Hayden -- noted that they went through 19,181 pages of filings as part of evidence that would stand 21 feet tall if stacked.

Other rulings from the court are still pending.

Coleman asked the court to invalidate votes from a Minneapolis precinct where ballots were lost between Election Day and the recount. A state board previously decided to rely on the machine count for the precinct.

Coleman also claimed poll workers made mistakes when making duplicate copies of damaged ballots. The error could have put both versions in the recount.

Combined, the matters could mean a swing of 100 votes.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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