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Coleman, Franken Battle Over Ballots

St. Louis County keeps election ballots in the courthouse attic. Anoka County keeps them locked in the basement. Hennepin County relies on its cities to keep ballots safe.

The lack of a uniform standard for counties safeguarding ballots after the election could come into play when those votes are recounted in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race. Click here for the latest count)

The campaigns have been negotiating neutral standards for ballot security after an unsuccessful court challenge Saturday by Republican incumbent Norm Coleman to halt the counting of 32 absentee ballots from Minneapolis. Coleman's campaign questioned the ballots' legitimacy, saying it was told the ballots had been left for several days in the car of a Minneapolis election official.

A city spokesman said the ballots were never unaccounted for, and the Coleman campaign later said it accepted those assurances. But with Coleman and Democrat Al Franken separated by a little more than 200 votes out of nearly 3 million cast, ballot integrity remains an issue.

"There have been some concerning reports about strange things happening in the context of this recount," Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty said. He said it's "important that the process be locked down and secure."

The last large-scale recount of a statewide election occurred in Washington state's 2004 gubernatorial race, which the Republican candidate initially appeared to win before losing to the Democrat after two recounts. In that case, vote totals changed several times upon discoveries of piles of uncounted ballots in several counties.

"It was an area where we thought we had good procedures in place," said Nick Handy, Washington's state elections director. "But the intense scrutiny of a razor-thin statewide recount really just brings everything to light."

Handy said overlooked ballots were the result of human error, but the oversights became a main focus of Republican Dino Rossi's unsuccessful lawsuit to overturn the election results after the second recount erased his lead. Handy said the Washington Legislature has since passed reforms to toughen the standards for handling ballots.

In Minnesota, rules enforced by the secretary of state require the municipalities that hold the elections to keep the ballots secure "until all recounts have been completed and until the time for contest of election has expired." There's no standard procedures for doing so.

Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie sent a memo late Monday to all county auditors and election administrators urging any municipality with control over ballots to take certain safety steps such as making sure ballots are stored under lock and key.

Ritchie also recommended officials search their offices to make sure they've collected all paper and electronic material related to votes and voter registrations.

It's been standard practice at Minnesota county offices to collect and store ballots in a secure place. In St. Louis County, that's in a room in the attic of the courthouse; only the county elections director and the county auditor have keys. In Anoka County, only one key exists to the basement room where the ballots are held. In tiny Cottonwood County, the county auditor keeps the ballot locked in a vault in his office.

"No one is monkeying around with this. They're taking this dead serious," said Paul Tynjala, St. Louis County's director of elections. "The last thing anyone wants is someone to contend the integrity of the ballots was somehow disturbed."

In Hennepin County, the state's largest, it would be "logistically difficult" to keep all the ballots in one place because of the number of voters, deputy elections manager Kurt Hoffman said. Instead, the ballots remain in the custody of the cities where the votes were cast. "There's an understanding between the cities and the county that they're going to keep them secured," Hoffman said.

After the weekend flap over the Minneapolis absentees, the Coleman campaign proposed to the Franken campaign a uniform set of standards for securing ballots based on the system established by Stearns County.

Among other provisions, Stearns County requires ballots remain under lock and key; that only two keys to the room exist; that any time county staff enters the room, at least two people must be present; that a log be kept noting why and when any workers entered the room; and that representatives of Senate campaigns be allowed to keep "visual guard" outside the ballot storage room.

The Franken campaign suggested several modifications. By Monday afternoon, the campaigns appeared to be close to an agreement on ballot security procedures.

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