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Franken declared winner - for now

Al Franken won the U.S. Senate race and should be sent to Washington, a Minnesota three-judge panel ruled Monday evening.

It still may be months before a new senator is seated, however. Norm Coleman plans to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. The loser at that level will then likely appeal to the U.S. courts.

The ruling follows a seven-week trial on a lawsuit Coleman brought after a statewide recount left him trailing Franken.

Franken said Monday night that he would head to Washington soon, as he has several times in recent weeks, to get ready to take office as Minnesota's second U.S. senator.

"It's time that Minnesota, like all other states, has two," he said, with his wife, Frannie, at his side.

Franken said that the judges' ruling is clear and unanimous. But he also said that he understands that Coleman will appeal.

A Coleman attorney said an appeal is needed in order to make sure every valid vote is counted.

The ruling said the election did not violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, as Coleman claimed. It also indicated the election was fair and that each county properly adopted ballot-counting rules, even if the 87 counties did not follow the exact same procedure.

The major dispute in the trial was whether thousands of absentee ballots that had been rejected in the Nov. 4 election should have been counted. In the end, the judges decided fewer than 400 previously uncounted ballots should be tallied.

About 300,000 Minnesotans voted absentee, and the Coleman camp asked that nearly 5,000 of the rejected ballots be counted.

Democrat Franken won by 312 votes over Republican Coleman, whose first Senate term ended Jan. 3, leaving Minnesota with just one senator in Washington.

Coleman tried to get the most ballots counted possible, giving him a chance to overcome a 225-vote deficit, but most of the votes the judges allowed to be counted went to Franken.

Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg left no doubt about the pending appeal.

"More than 4,400 Minnesotans remain wrongly disenfranchised by this court's order," he said in a statement issued shortly after the judges released their ruling. "The court's ruling tonight is consistent with how they've ruled throughout this case but inconsistent with the Minnesota tradition of enfranchising voters."

While the race is being decided, Democrat Amy Klobuchar remains Minnesota's sole federal senator.

On Nov. 18, the state Canvassing Board showed Coelman led Franken 1,211,565 to 1,211,359. However, after the statewide hand recount of each of the 2.9 million ballots, the board ruled on Jan. 5 - two days after Coleman's term expired - that Franken won by 225 votes.

Coleman challenged the recount in court, leading to the lengthy trial, which began Jan. 26.

During the trial, judges heard from 142 witnesses, including 69 voters. The rest were state and local elections officials. The two sides gave the judges 1,717 exhibits.

In the meantime, the state Supreme Court has ruled that no election certificate could be forthcoming until the appeals process ends.

The judges ordered that Coleman pay at least some of Franken's legal fees, which are in the millions of dollars.