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Coleman-Franken recount ‘sequel’: A Tale of Two Outcomes

The proposed ending of the story is familiar to all observers, with both sides in the Senate race again claiming certain victory, but each day brings new plot developments.

Depending on where you stand, the U.S. Senate recount has narrowed to about 50 votes (or less) and Al Franken is certain to win …

Or the very same recount will be reduced to lengthy lawyer-laden meetings about what constitutes “frivolity” and Norm Coleman is a shoo-in — by more than 100 votes — to be back in the U.S. Capitol come January.

We’ve heard this Tale of Two Outcomes before — like just about every day for the past three weeks or so — but where Franken recount lawyer Marc Elias stood today was a bit more curious than usual.

Elias, the chatty and pugnacious inside-the-Beltway Franken rep, conducted his news briefing from the Washington offices of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. That’s the power-centric gang with a straightforward mission: electing a Democratic Senate.

As for Coleman’s recount attorney and surrogate, Fritz Knaak, he stood behind his usual lectern in the Midway district of St. Paul, right down the block from the Amtrak station, and he just couldn’t help himself from pointing out Elias’s “East Coast” location.

Now, geographic spins
“While he’s in D.C., I’m presuming he’s strategizing with Democrats about a Senate floor strategy to ignore the will of the Minnesota voters,” Knaak said, “but I’ll let him explain that issue to you.”

He added that Elias was in “whispering distance” of the chair of the Senate Rules Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.

You don’t need MapQuest or negative post-campaign research to tell you that the DSCC offices are a short hop, skip and spin from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Hart Senate Building office. Reid’s the fellow — what? among the top five most influential pols in Washington — who last week criticized Minnesota’s State Canvassing Board for not including rejected absentee ballots in the recount.

Those comments seemed to solidify Knaak’s belief that if Franken doesn’t win the recount or win in the courts, then this baby is headed to the contentious U.S. Senate floor as per devilish details in that document known as the U.S. Constitution.

For his part, Elias said he was in Washington innocently enough; that is, to reacquaint himself with his wife and two children after having spent two weeks in Minnesota working the recount. There was nothing suspicious at all about his time in the nation’s capital, he allowed, and he is scheduled to return to our frozen tundra tonight to watch the final votes recounted.

“I have not talked to anyone on the rules committee” about how this recount might turn out, he said, or future strategy.

Reid, by the way, is on the rules committee.

But had Tuesday’s Georgia runoff Senate election turned into an upset and had Democrat challenger Jim Martin beat enincumbent Saxby Chambliss, then the Minnesota recount would have turned into a chippier game than it has been heretofore.

“If Chambliss doesn’t succeed in Georgia, there’s going to be a lot more scrutiny and a lot more pressure … for a Senate resolution of this,” Knaak predicted Tuesday before Chambliss’ win.

Georgia Senate contest could complicate matters
Had Martin won, then, by golly, Coleman would have become the blocker of a filibuster-proof Dem Senate or Franken wouldhave  become Mr. Sixty himself.

Still, as we dribble into the last 5 percent or so of un-recounted ballots, Knaak seemed quite calm today, noting that in 2,592 precincts in the state — or 63 percent of all precincts — there were no challenges at all. And in those counts, Coleman picked up one vote.

The implication: The recount will look like the first count, with the incumbent winning, if only by a hair — and a margin “not below three digits,” Knaak said.

“The math isn’t working for the Franken campaign, and that may explain the move of their recount headquarters to Washington, D.C., at least for now,” Knaak said, with a twinkle in his eye and a poke in his words.

But, hey, no problem. Elias, who has led other victorious recounts, keeps on ticking.

“I think we’re going to win this recount,” he said, with nary an if, and or but. “I have no doubt in my mind that Al Franken got more votes in this election than Norm Coleman, and the only question is whether or not Norm Coleman is going to continue to have his lawyers fight” and not have all the votes counted, Elias said.

Those are the sort of quotable jabs Elias has made all through this post-campaign campaign. And it’s true that Coleman’s forces on the ground have challenged more votes than Franken’s army of watchdog volunteers.

But other than a misfired attempt to stop 32 votes from Minneapolis way back when in early November — which seems like centuries ago — the Coleman campaign hasn’t tried to stop anything, it seems, that hasn’t been stopped by others, such as the State Canvassing Board last week.

Challenged-ballots debate could be lengthy, too
On the challenged ballot front, Elias said today that the Franken campaign will begin to unilaterally withdraw challenges this week. Knaak continued to insist that a better way to do all this would be with some meetings in which both sides could agree what challenges have been frivolous and which ones are in dispute.

Elias said Knaak could withdraw them without the two sides being in the same place, but if Knaak wants a meeting, he is open to it. Knaak said he expected any meeting on tossing out challenges could and should be lengthy.

You get the feeling that we’re gonna need Secretary of State Mark Ritchie or Macalester grad Kofi Annan to help determine the shape of the table at this meeting.

By the way, the process of withdrawing challenges is quite simple. Each ballot that’s been challenged has been marked by county, by precinct, by number, by challenger and by reason for the challenge.

If, for instance, each campaign were to withdraw hundreds of challenges, it would send a correspondence to the secretary of state’s office for the Canvassing Board noting which ballots were now free to be counted for the opponent.

In another development today that heartened the Franken side — and didn’t really annoy the Coleman camp — Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann sent an email to election officials statewide instructing them to divide rejected absentee ballots into five piles.

This is a result of last week’s Canvassing Board meeting at which it seems as if the board members were leaning toward including absentee ballots that were rejected for odd or inexplicable reasons …mostly administrative errors.

Gelbmann — in bold print — told the local officials not to count these ballots in the “fifth pile,” but it seems to be paving the way for that eventuality. The board is awaiting an opinion from the attorney general’s office on whether to include these ballots. A spokesman for Ritchie said the board will probably meet next week, not this week, to tackle issues before it.

‘Mystery’ Maplewood votes stir new controversy
Meanwhile, under the category of “How-is-that-possible-in-Minnesota-a-month-after-an-election?” 171 ballots were found in Ramsey County today. Both campaigns were monitoring the situation Tuesday afternoon, but be sure that the Coleman side will look especially at that discovery in Maplewood.

By day’s end, Ritchie issued a statement expressing concern about the newly uncovered ballots and “asking Ramsey County for a detailed explanation as to how this error occurred and went unnoticed until now. This office is requesting that the county re-verify the number of individuals who voted in this precinct, to reassure both this office and the public that these newly found votes were validly cast.”  

According to the Star Tribune, Franken picked up a cool 37 votes in the discovery.

Elias, acknowledging he didn’t know the details of this kerfuffle, still pointed to it as proof that every vote has to be counted.

Every last vote, indeed, from Maplewood, Minn., to Washington, D.C.