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Mystery in Minnesota: Challenged Votes Keep Everyone Guessing in Senate Race

In a week that has raised the specter of ballots that may have been wrongfully rejected, lost and, on Tuesday, found, challenged ballots — those on which either side felt the voters’ intent wasn’t perfectly clear — may ultimately decide the still-unresolved U.S. Senate race in Minnesota. Incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman holds onto a slim 303-vote lead over Democratic challenger Al Franken, but that margin doesn’t include a surprisingly large number of challenged ballots. The candidates are questioning some 6,000 ballots — or 27 of every 10,000 cast for Franken or Coleman — leaving impartial judges the task of sorting out which ballots to keep and which to toss.

The shelf life of the candidates’ ballot challenges, however, is limited. There’s a Dec. 5 deadline for counties to complete their recount responsibilities and a Dec. 16 date for the State Canvassing Board to begin aggregating the counties’ handiwork, including the critical task of sorting out the challenged ballots.

In the meantime, the State Canvassing Board may also decide what, if anything, it will do about examining an estimated 12,000 rejected absentee ballots for legitimate votes that should have been counted.

Most counties are finished with their recounts, but some have yet to start. On Tuesday only the large Minneapolis-St. Paul counties of Hennepin and Ramsey, along with Dodge County, had recounting scheduled, according to The Uptake, which closely tracks counties’ efforts. On Wednesday four counties begin their recounts. (When to start is up to local officials to decide, as long as they meet Friday’s deadline.)

Recount duties grew somewhat more complex today when Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie asked county auditors via email to sort rejected absentee ballots into separate piles according to reason for rejection (or lack thereof), according to an update issued by the Franken campaign. Ritchie’s new instructions complicate the process for handling absentee ballots after his office last week strove to simplify the overall recount by asking the Coleman and Franken campaigns to rein in their ballot challenges by Wednesday evening. Both campaigns say they’ll withdraw some challenges. But exactly how many ballot challenges either side foregoes to satisfy Ritchie will likely depend on how many challenges the other side appears willing to drop.

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