BUFFALO, Minn. — The statewide hand recount of ballots in Minnesota's Senate race drew just short of conclusion Friday, but the contest between Sen. Norm Coleman and Al Franken was far from being resolved.
Officials in Minneapolis were still looking for about 130 ballots missing in one precinct, but short of that the recount wrapped up when Wright County finished just before lunchtime. The Republican incumbent held a slight edge, with a 192-vote lead over Democrat Franken.
The Associated Press arrived at the figure by comparing Nov. 4 tallies and those from the recount in all the finished precincts, which excludes the one in Minneapolis, and applying the changes to Coleman's 215-vote lead in the initial vote count.
But that 192-vote lead doesn't account for more than 6,600 ballot challenges from the two campaigns. It's muddied further by legal squabbles over Franken's push to include some rejected absentee ballots in the final count.
Both campaigns have already abandoned more than 1,200 challenges combined and vow to do more. A state canvassing board meets starting Dec. 16 to decide on those that remain.
"We're the period at the end of this history," said Bob Hiivala, the Wright County auditor/treasurer, after finishing his county's work. "But the next step is the canvassing board, so maybe we're really not the end."
Hiivala said Wright County didn't choose to be at the end of the line, but this week was the only time he could get the largest room in the county building. County workers started their third day of work at 8 a.m., and as they drew to a finish at least a dozen people surrounded the man reviewing challenges from both sides in the final precinct.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie applauded the work of local election officials across the state, who thumbed through millions of ballots over 2 1/2 weeks.
"The hardest part — counting nearly 3 million ballots under the glare of 1,000 klieg lights — that's the hardest part and it's over," Ritchie said.
The final hours were rocky in the state's largest city. In addition to the approximately 130 missing Minneapolis ballots, city spokesman Matt Laible said about 10 uncounted absentee ballots from another precinct were discovered at the election warehouse. He said they would be sent unopened to the canvassing board.
Laible said the ballots were returned to the warehouse on Election Night, but had gone undiscovered because they weren't returned using the normal process.
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Workers at the city's warehouse continued to look for the larger pile of missing ballots, more than 24 hours after city officials concluded they were missing. The secretary of state's office instructed city workers to keep looking even past what had been a requested deadline of Friday for finishing the hand recount.
Coleman's attorney, Fritz Knaak, took issue with the idea that missing votes in Minneapolis should delay a conclusive end to the recount.
"I think any time you leave a precinct open indefinitely you raise the possibility, the suggestion of mischief," said Knaak. He also criticized the secretary of state's office for taking Franken-requested steps on the Minneapolis situation without notifying Coleman's campaign first.
Knaak said there have been other precincts where the recount numbers haven't exactly matched the election day tally. The Franken campaign has acknowledged that, but pointed out none approached the number of votes apparently missing in Minneapolis.
No results from that Minneapolis precinct are included in the figures posted for Hennepin County on the secretary of state's Web site. The ballots suspected as missing make up only a small slice of ballots in a precinct that Franken carried by 495 votes.
Until the search ends — whether the ballots turn up or not — the count for that precinct is considered incomplete, and no votes will be recorded for either Coleman or Franken.
As of Friday, Coleman had amassed 1,208,344 votes in the recount and Franken had 1,207,657 — a difference of 687. Because the Minneapolis precinct favors Franken, that gap will close considerably before the next phase of the process.
Franken's attorney, Marc Elias, said any legally cast ballots — whether from Minneapolis or someplace else — that are found after Friday should be added to the recount total.
"We have said every single day since we started that every single lawful vote should be counted," Elias said.
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