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Countdown to Coleman-Franken recount: A day of political whiplash

By Jay Weiner | Monday, Nov. 17, 2008
Forget the lawyers and the spinmeisters. Forget the sworn affidavits and the “five piles” of votes that the State Canvassing Board is set to deal with Tuesday.

Forget the lawyers and the spinmeisters.

Forget the sworn affidavits and the “five piles” – Franken votes, Coleman votes, others’ votes, votes challenged by Al, votes challenged by Norm — that are about to enter into Minnesota’s vocabulary like so many “hanging chads” did to Florida’s.

What this U.S. Senate recount really needs is a team of massage therapists and orthopedists to handle all the political back and forth.

Whiplash Monday, with a repeat likely Tuesday
You could call it Whiplash Monday, but Tuesday looks as bad, what with the State Canvassing Board set to meet at 1 p.m. and hear what’s sure to be a cage-match-like dispute triggered by Al Franken’s campaign. It will urge the board, made up of four state judges and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, to include “hundreds” of previously rejected absentee ballots in the Senate vote count.

On Monday, necks jostled from a tsunami of dueling news conferences, media releases and rhetoric. A journalist could move from one fender-bender to another and feel his shoulders and temples tighten as if an SUV had just slammed his Kia from behind.

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Centrists, led by former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, kicked off the day quietly and somewhat rationally in an early-morning news gathering. Durenberger and others sought a principled, transparent recount. His message was that everyone should get along, count all the votes and not be throwing hand grenades at Ritchie.

But that was early in the day, and no one listened to the former senator. The skirmishes were just beginning.

Arch-conservatives, led by the Minnesota Majority came next on the State Capitol campus, urging the state to do away with same-day voter registration and to require photo IDs at the polls. They announced that they are urging the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate voter registration irregularities in Minnesota and unveiled an online petition to send to political leaders. They might be fringe-y, but they fit right in to the day’s basic theme: Let’s make elections fair and make every vote count.

Franken campaign makes day’s biggest news
Soon after, five miles away toward Minneapolis, the Franken campaign made that exact argument and the biggest news of the day.

At the campaign’s offices near Highway 280 and University Avenue, smack dab on the St. Paul-Minneapolis border, Franken’s Washington, D.C., attorney Marc Elias announced that the campaign had filed an 18-page brief and four affidavits with the Canvassing Board. Elias, a nationally known recount specialist, underlined this notion: without considering previously rejected absentee ballots, the board won’t have a vote count to certify Tuesday.

“We’re going to ask them to make sure that in the certification is a review of these ballots,” he said. “We would ask them to not certify the vote count until this is completed.”

When asked if he was suggesting the board – led by State Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson – should halt the recount, Elias said that wasn’t his aim.

“If the State Canvassing Board were to move forward with improperly rejected absentee ballots still uncounted … with Minnesotans having been disenfranchised, people who cast lawful ballots not having those ballots counted, it would be a problem both under Minnesota state law and also under the United States Constitution.”

Take that, Canvassing Board.

(The Star Tribune reported Tuesday that the Minnesota attorney general’s office has issued an opinion to Ritchie saying the absentee ballots shouldn’t be counted by the Canvassing Board.)

After Elias raised the prospect of state and federal legal actions, a mere 90 minutes later — back at the Capitol, that bastion of reason and citizenship — Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey poked at Franken for heading to Washington to consult on Wednesday with Democratic Senate leaders.

Carey suggested that, perhaps, Franken is jockeying for “that end game scenario” … which is this election being tossed into the hands of the U.S. Senate.

That’s a possibility if the vote count isn’t resolved by Jan. 3. The U.S. Constitution says members of the House and Senate can – as final arbiters — select the members of their clubs.

Franken has tried to “cloud the election results by going to D.C. and trying to appear as though he may have won,” Carey said. “The fact is, Norm Coleman has now twice won this election.”


Journalists pushed back saying, “Wait, who says Norm won?”

Carey then tried to revive the 32-votes-lost-in-the-car myth shot down by everyone now and also raised suspicion about some ballots mysteriously discovered in Duluth.

Whatever, a half-hour later, across the street at the State Office Building, Secretary of State Ritchie conducted his own information session, detailing how the recount will work.

But first he had to answer the most pressing question of the day: Will a recount actually begin on Wednesday as planned?

“Absolutely,” he said, although he allowed later that a judge or God could intervene.

We know for sure that Franken’s lawyer will raise the rejected votes issue. Coleman’s lawyers will contest it. The Minnesota attorney general is expected to weigh in. Other citizens may raise concerns. And both sides are asking their supporters to show up at the Canvassing Board meeting, assuring a chorus of boos and cheers.

“I want to make sure that we don’t go until midnight,” Ritchie said, causing more neck pain among those in attendance.

As the sun set Monday, the temperature dipped, the flurries flew and the battle ensued.

An early evening statement from the Coleman campaign was issued that read, in part, “the emerging evidence that Coleman will win in a fair, legal and transparent recount is causing the Franken campaign to shift into a highly litigious and legalistic effort to block the recount, and invalidate the results of the election.”

Alas, they got the last word today before Coleman-Franken: The Sequel moves to the State Canvassing Board. Appropriately, the board gets a blank canvas to paint a picture of how the democratic process works.

If Monday is our guide, this much we can assume about Tuesday: Someone is sure to complain.

Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.