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Two high-powered attorneys sit side-by-side at the witness table during last week's State Canvassing Board meeting, during which a recount was ordered in the governor race. On the left is Marc Elias, a nationally known recount attorney working for candidate Mark Dayton; on the right is Eric Magnuson, former Minneosta Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, a candidate Tom Emmer attorney. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

Ballot counters hope Minnesotans learned their lesson

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ST. PAUL -- Minnesotans remember all too well the days, weeks, months of squabbling over ballots two years ago.

There were ballots with stray marks, raising in some minds a question about who those voters actually picked in the 2008 U.S. Senate race. In a classic example, the oval next to Norm Coleman's name was fully filled in, but there was a little mark in the oval next to Al Franken's name. The State Canvassing Board decided that vote belonged to Coleman.

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Then there were the ballots where voters appeared to be making political, or merely humorous, statements. The "Lizard People" notation was a prime example.

After the state-funded recount ended, a trial centering on absentee ballot irregularities began in late January that eventually led to Franken becoming Minnesota's senator early in July 2009.

Those in charge of the state's election system hope the 2008 Senate election struggle taught Minnesota voters something as state and local election officials prepare to begin recounting all 2.1 million ballots from the Nov. 2 governor's race.

"The citizens have been put on alert that the ballot really matters," said Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, in charge of the state's election operation.

Reports he has received indicate voters minded their P's and Q's, presenting much cleaner ballots in 2010.

Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty changed laws since the marathon Coleman-Franken fight with the intention to reduce problems. New laws make it more difficult for campaigns to challenge local election officials' decisions and simplified the absentee-ballot process.

While absentee problems this year were a fraction of those found in 2008, and so far hardly have been discussed in the governor's race, Republican Tom Emmer's campaign has challenged other aspects of the election, including claiming that there appear to have been more votes counted than there were voters who signed in on Election Day.

On Tuesday, the State Canvassing Board reviewed election returns and concluded, as expected, that Democrat Mark Dayton's 8,770-vote lead over Republican Emmer falls well within the 0.5 percent margin where a statewide, state-funded hand recount of every ballot is mandated. The board ordered the recount to begin at 9 a.m. Monday in each of Minnesota's 87 counties.

Some counties, those with fewer residents, could wrap up their work in a day. Others may take most of the week, and all must be done by Dec. 7. Counties will report their new vote totals every night, giving Minnesotans an idea about where the recount is headed.

During the recount, Emmer and Dayton representatives will watch local election officials decide which candidate gets every vote. If the a campaign disagrees with the official's decision, the ballots will be placed in a pile of challenged ballots that will be sent to the State Canvassing Board to go through and make its own decision about who each voter wanted to be governor.

Among the state laws changed since Coleman-Franken is one that was supposed to make it more difficult for campaigns to issue frivolous challenges. That could make the process move faster than in 2008.

The Canvassing Board returns to session on Dec. 8, 9 and 10 to examine those challenged ballots. And on Dec. 14, the board is to decide whether Emmer or Dayton wins.

However, the losing candidate has seven days after that Dec. 14 decision to file what is known as an "election contest," which could put the election in judges' hands. The court case is what delayed the Senate race so long.

Emmer's legal team already has taken some steps that could be laying the groundwork for a court case. But in an interview Emmer said he will make that decision after the recount is over. If it appears all the votes were correctly counted, he said that he could be satisfied.

A new governor is supposed to be sworn in on Jan. 3. A court case could delay that, and some read the state constitution as requiring Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty to stay on until the courts sort out the legal case. Others are not so sure Pawlenty would need to, or be allowed to, remain in office.

While Ritchie is State Canvassing Board chairman, jurists will join him in making many of the governor's race decisions. They are judges Gregg Johnson of Ramsey County and Denise Reilly of Hennepin County and Supreme Court justices Paul Anderson and David Stras.

Anderson dealt with cases in the 2008 U.S. Senate recount as a justice and Reilly sat on a three-judge panel that handled the court challenge centering on absentee ballots in that election.

"We love our state and want to get this right," Anderson said as the Canvassing Board prepared recount rules local election officials will follow.

Anderson made it clear he wants to avoid a post-recount legal fight like the one that stretched out the Senate race. In the board's Tuesday meeting, he repeatedly read the fine print to make sure all problems were headed off.

"The stakes are high here ..." he said. "If we make a mistake, it could mean a new recount."

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