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25 challenges issued in Senate recount -- New Becker County total will include 61 ballots that have never been counted

There were 25 ballot challenges issued in the U.S. Senate recount in Becker County Monday -- and that was before election challengers could sink their teeth into 61 ballots that were discovered a few days after the election and have not yet been counted.

Those ballots will be counted Tuesday morning, along with other ballots in their precincts. Fifty-three of the as-yet uncounted ballots came from mail-in precincts and eight were absentee ballots.

Those missing ballots, if allowed to stand, could play a major role in a race in which 215 votes separate Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken.

Coleman carried Becker County by 2,400 votes in the original count.

"It's a very unfortunate situation," Becker County Auditor-Treasurer Ryan Tangen said Monday.

He said that the ballots were overlooked and not transferred to the counting area on election night. They did arrive at the county courthouse by 8 p.m., Tangen said.

The 61 ballots were in a box that got picked up along with rejected ballots on election night and put in a secure cubical in the Auditor-Treasurer's Office.

Tangen said a member of his staff discovered the ballots the Friday following the election, when he returned from several days away at an out-of-town training trip.

He said he immediately notified the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office, and was directed to check to see if the ballots would change the result of any local races. (They do not). But the state and federal races have not been counted yet.

Tangen said that the advice given to him by the Becker County Attorney's and the Minnesota Secretary of State's offices were to count the 61 ballots during the recount process.

They are separated by precinct and will be counted Tuesday morning when those precincts are recounted. Tangen said that they will still be segregated from the rest of the ballots in case any challenges come up as to their validity.

"Tomorrow we will do those ballots first," he said Monday afternoon.

In a separate issue, four ballots from Holmesville Township could not immediately be located during that precinct's recount.

"We went over it a few times, but it still came up to the same number," election judge Louann Gerdes said out loud to Tangen and other officials.

"They could be in the ballot box, but it's a pretty slim chance," Tangen said to observers from Coleman's and Franken's campaigns.

Tangen worked with the township clerk and was able to find the four missing ballots, which had been accidentally placed in the ballot supply box rather than in the ballot box.

Without the four ballots, Coleman would have lost 3 votes and Franken would have lost 1 vote. But that was not the case. No Holmesville ballots were challenged.

"We located them and both campaigns agreed to count them," Tangen said Monday evening. "They were in different boxes, but all of them had been kept in the same secure location."

That location is behind a series of three locked rooms, including the windowless supply room where the ballots are stored that only Tangen and a deputy in his office can access.

Of the 25 ballot challenges issued Monday, 20 of them involved ballots from Detroit Township, in which 11 were challenged by the Franken campaign and 9 by the Coleman campaign.

Detroit Township was the largest of the 14 precincts counted Monday, and it had to be recounted three times, Tangen said.

"There's a fine line between trying to work as fast as you can and trying to be as accurate as possible," he said. "We wanted to work with the party representatives and make sure everyone was in agreement before moving on."

Of the remaining challenges, two were issued by the Coleman campaign during the Atlanta Township recount, another by the Coleman campaign during the Audubon Township recount, and one by each campaign during the Runeberg Township recount.

That's considerably more challenges than other counties in the area saw during their recounts.

The recount started slowly. After several hours, only one challenge had been issued, coming from the Coleman campaign.

Tangen said that challenge involved a ballot that was marked clearly for Franken, but the oval for Coleman appeared to be covered by correction fluid. That ballot came from a mail-in precinct.

The basis for the challenge is that it would be an overvote that would invalidate the ballot as far as the Senate race is concerned, since the marking could indicate a vote for both Coleman and Franken.

Day 1 of the recount wrapped up about 4:30 p.m. and Day 2 of the recount in Becker County begins at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

Tangen planned for the recount to last three days, but hopes it will be wrapped up by Tuesday evening.

He said that each table out of the three set up can recount 1,500 ballots in an hour. There were 16,873 ballots recorded in the Senate race in Becker County.

The first-floor courtroom where the recount is being held was a popular place Monday, with eight to 10 people representing the Coleman and Franken campaigns in the room at any given time, as well as media, spectators and the occasional busload of high school students trying watch the counting while staying behind the warning tape on the floor.

Tangen said there was no shortage of civic-minded volunteers. About 20 election judges called asking to participate in the recount.

Tangen chose five of them to help four county employees during the process.

The precincts that were counted Monday were: City of Audubon, Audubon Township, Carsonville Township, Detroit Township, Eagle View Township, Erie Township, Evergreen Township, Forest Township, Height of Land Township, Holmesville Township, Maple Grove Township, the City of Ogema, Runeberg Township and Walworth Township.

(DL Newspapers reporter Jason Adkins contributed to this story)