Franken-Coleman trial: Both sides question deputy secretary of state – a true ‘man in the middle’

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann and Sen. Norm Coleman

AP Photo/Richard Sennott
On Day Three of the Senate election contest trial, Norm Coleman listens as his attorney, Joe Friedberg (out of photo), questions Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann about procedures surrounding decisions on absentee ballots.

“What you’re observing out there may not seem as exciting as what you see on ‘Law & Order,’  but the principles that we’re fighting for… are more important than anything you’ll see on ‘Law and Order.’ ” — Norm Coleman after Wednesday’s court proceedings

James Gelbmann, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s deputy, spent six hours on the witness stand today. It wasn’t great TV.

He’ll be back again Thursday. Don’t expect great drama then, either.

For right now, call Gelbmann the man in the middle of the Al Franken-Norm Coleman election contest.

Gelbmann, at times, in both sides’ corners of the wrasslin’ match
The veteran state employee, Woodbury-area school board member and former campaign manager and aide to Sen. Mark Dayton seemed to serve the legal interests of both sides on Day Three of the Franken-Coleman courtroom wrasslin’ match.

In the morning, under gentle direct examination from Coleman lawyer Joe Friedberg, Gelbmann, who has been in the middle of the recount since Nov. 4, explained that he was certain that some votes that haven’t been counted so far should have been counted in the 2008 Minnesota Senate race.

Example: A woman named Lucinda witnessed the filling out of an absentee ballot. She signed her ballot “Cindy.” It was rejected.

But later, under painstaking cross-examination by Franken lawyer David Lillehaug, Gelbmann walked through a series of memos and documents that revealed how Norm Coleman’s position during the recount has migrated … from wanting no wrongfully rejected absentee ballots counted to a few to several hundred to, now, thousands.

The testimony also revealed that Gelbmann and his office believed local election officials generally did excellent jobs.

Friedberg successfully raised doubt that some votes that haven’t been counted should be.

But how many? How many previously rejected ballots will Judges Kurt Marben, Denise Reilly and Elizabeth Hayden be willing to count?

How long will it take? What will counting 11,000 or so previously rejected votes prove? Particularly if most of them will be rejected (again) anyway for valid, legal reasons?

Senate vote recount trial

AP Photo/Richard Sennott
Judge Kurt Marben, flanked by Judge Denise Reilly on the left and Judge Elizabeth Hayden on the right, makes a point during the trial.

In Gelbmann’s mind, about 1,350 absentee ballots may have been wrongly rejected. That was the number that counties gathered in December. About 930 were counted by the secretary of state’s office during the recount.

The Coleman side says votes were rejected for different reasons statewide. Gelbmann says there were uniform rules, but he wasn’t in every one of the 4,000 or so precincts to be certain the rules were followed.

The guy told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but needed a salted nut roll during a break to keep on going. He’s a diabetic. He’s also an independent voter: not one to have a conflict of interest in this legal standoff, Gelbmann said he voted for Dean Barkley. He didn’t like the negative campaign between Franken and Coleman.

Key spin doctors do their daily thing
As for the analysis of what happened here, MinnPost will leave it to the key spin doctors from each side to make their daily closing arguments.

Franken lawyer Marc Elias on the Coleman side’s search for votes to close the 225-vote lead that Franken holds: “If they want to go fishing, they should go to one of the more than 10,000 lakes that are available to them this time of year for fishing expeditions, and they ought not to be doing it in ballot boxes in 87 counties.”

Elias on Coleman’s changing position on counting absentee ballots: “When the game is over, at the end of the race, when they didn’t win, they can’t say, ‘Hey, the starting line, we’ve got to move the starting line … After the race is over, it’s too late to raise those things … It’s legally untenable.”

Countered Coleman spokesman Ben Ginsberg: “The reality …. [is that] there still in Minnesota is a large number of disenfranchised voters … Both campaigns have taken positions in the past that are not entirely consistent of where they are now. That frankly is irrelevant. What is relevant is votes that are still not properly counted.”

Ginsberg on why Elias and other Franken lawyers are fighting so hard on limiting the wrongfully rejected absentee ballot pool at this trial: “When all is said and done, these three judges have the power to right the wrongs of the wrongly excluded absentee ballots … The Franken campaign knows the trouble they are in if those [11,000] votes are counted, which is why you hear them making a lot of legal arguments.”

Countered Elias: “Do I look fearful?”

The trial resumes Thursday at 9 a.m.

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

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Erich Russell on 01/28/2009 - 10:22 pm.

    Its called “Sitzfleisch.” This is a contest of wills between the Coleman side and the Court with the Franken lawyers demanding an ending from the cheap seats. Friedberg had better be prepared to lay a lot of foundation to juxtapose vote upon inconsistent rejection over and over and over… because the Court is going to have to be tormented into fashioning a shorthand recount solution; if it even can. The reevaluation of that 400 contested by the parties may be a given. Coleman has miles to go before the recount pool gets bigger by classes of votes. He may have to prove up hundreds to reach thousands. If he has to prove every vote up this will never end until the retainer pool runs dry. Let’s make a pact folks. No contributions to legal funds!

  2. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 01/28/2009 - 10:34 pm.

    Does Ginsberg have no shame? This is the same person who Bush hired to prevent ballots being counted in Florida. For those who have forgotten, thanks to delays Ginsberg was instrumental causing, there were no finished recounts in Florida. Zero. None. There were repeated attempts at recounts, but no recounts. Now this —- has the nerve to come here and accuse someone else of not wanting to count the votes, someone who spent the recount trying to get the wrongly rejected ballots counted despite Coleman’s attempts to stop it.

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