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Senate trial judges to count 23 ballots

Kevin Boyle, Dakota County's elections manager, testifies Tuesday about rejected absentee ballots in the Senate election trial. Pool photo by Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

ST. PAUL - Judges deciding Minnesota's U.S. Senate election trial said Tuesday they will count nearly two-dozen improperly rejected absentee ballots.

The 23 ballot envelopes all are believed to contain votes for Democrat Al Franken, who ended the recount with a 225-vote lead over Norm Coleman. Coleman is challenging that result in the election trial.

The 23 voters were among 61 who filed legal documents claiming their absentee ballots were wrongly rejected in the Nov. 4 election and the Senate recount.

After the election, Franken supporters contacted the voters and asked if they wanted to fight to have their votes counted. Some ballots had been rejected because of voter signature discrepancies, others because of administrative error.

"The court determines that the petitioners ... have provided unrebutted evidence that their absentee ballots were legally cast and should be counted," the ruling said.

The three judges presiding over the trial ordered that the ballots, from 11 counties around the state, be sent to the secretary of state. The court did not say when the votes would be counted.

The judges ruled that a 24th ballot envelope should be opened to determine whether it includes a voter registration card in addition to the ballot. If it does contain the registration card, that ballot will be counted.

"It demonstrates both that as we've said all along, these folks ought to have their ballots opened and counted, and that the court will go step by step and it's not going to do things in broad strokes," Franken attorney Marc Elias said of the ruling.

Coleman's campaign, which is arguing that up to 4,800 rejected absentee ballots should be reviewed and possibly counted, applauded the decision.

"While these were all Franken supporters, we take it nonetheless as a very good ruling consistent with the court's desire to enfranchise all wrongly rejected ballots," Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg said.

The three-judge panel indicated last week it plans to open and count all legally cast absentee ballots that were wrongly rejected in the election.

The remaining 37 voters that were part of the filing did not provide sufficient evidence to order that their votes be counted, the court said. The judges did not rule out counting them later, if further evidence makes clear they were wrongly rejected.

The decision came on the trial's 12th day, which included testimony from Dakota County election official Kevin Boyle. Coleman attorney Tony Trimble reviewed dozens of rejected absentee ballots with Boyle, asking for details about each and how they were handled.

Coleman's campaign is arguing that different counties used different guidelines to decide which absentee ballots to count.