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Judge: Franken gets ballot data

Al Franken campaign attorney Marc Elias shows reporters the ruling of a Ramsey County District Court judge, who Wednesday ordered the county to comply with the campaign's request for information about rejected absentee ballots. staff photo by Scott Wente

ST. PAUL - Al Franken won an interim victory Wednesday, and hopes that provides him enough votes to win the U.S. Senate race.

As election officials started recounting Minnesota's 2.9 million U.S. Senate ballots, a judge granted the Democrat's request that Ramsey County release controversial absentee ballot information.

The county must divulge the names of absentee-ballot voters and any written information about why the ballots were rejected, Ramsey County District Court Judge Dale Lindman decided.

The ruling came soon after a morning court hearing, and Lindman ordered the county to comply almost as quickly, by the end of the day Wednesday. He said the county suffers no harm by providing information it must maintain.

"With each passing hour, the Franken campaign is irreparably harmed in its efforts to ensure that each valid vote is properly counted and to prepare for the procedures that will decide this election," Lindman wrote.

While it was awarded the information, Franken's campaign awaits a decision from the state Canvassing Board whether it will order that wrongly rejected absentee ballots will be included in the recount. That is expected next week.

Franken's campaign had asked Minnesota's 87 counties to provide a list of voters whose ballots were rejected. The campaign said 12 to 15 counties complied, and from that it learned some absentee ballots were improperly rejected.

Ramsey County did not comply, which prompted the lawsuit.

The judge's decision affected only Minnesota's second-largest county, but Franken officials said they would call or send an e-mail to other counties to make them aware of the ruling and ask that they also provide the information.

"It is validation by a court of the central premise of our effort, which is to ensure that each valid vote is properly counted," Franken attorney Marc Elias said.

Every vote is important in the Senate race. Heading into the state-mandated recount, Coleman led Franken by 215 votes.

The campaign does not know how many absentee ballots were wrongly rejected statewide, Franken spokesman Andy Barr said. He refused to say whether the campaign planned to contact voters on those lists.

Coleman's campaign believes that will happen. Attorney Fritz Knaak said Franken will use the information to "pound on people's doors" and ask them about their vote.

Knaak said Coleman's campaign already has heard from maybe a dozen Beltrami County absentee voters who were contacted by Franken's campaign.

In court, attorneys raised the issue of how the information may be used, but Franken attorney David Lillehaug said that was not relevant to the campaign's request for information it believed is public under state law.

The data requested is private, and only the voters' names may be public, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Darwin Lookingbill argued.

Coleman's campaign was not part of the lawsuit but sided with Ramsey County. Knaak said the campaign asked for the same rejected ballot information given Franken, but does not plan to do anything with it. He said it would be "put in a box and sealed for the time-being."

Coleman and Franken were far from the Minnesota recount action and legal proceedings Wednesday. Coleman was in Washington for Senate business. Franken was in Washington, too, to meet with Senate Democratic leaders and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. He then traveled to New York City for a fundraiser.