Image: Al Franken
Jim Mone  /  AP
In this June 7, 2008 file photo, confetti falls around former comedian Al Franken after he accepted the Democratic endorsement for U.S. Senate from Minnesota at the party's state convention in Rochester, Minn.
updated 12/16/2008 4:28:17 PM ET 2008-12-16T21:28:17

Members of a board refereeing more than 1,000 disputed ballots in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race started their work gingerly Tuesday, squinting at ballots as they tried to figure out what some voters intended.

On their first day of work, the five members of the Canvassing Board dealt almost exclusively with roughly 440 challenges filed by Democrat Al Franken. Most challenges were attempts to keep a vote for Sen. Norm Coleman off the board but some were aimed at getting an unclear ballot counted for Franken.

Coleman, the Republican incumbent, leads Franken by 188 votes out of more than 2.9 million ballots cast on Nov. 4.

It is the only unresolved U.S. Senate race. A Franken win would give Democrats 59 seats, when two independents who align with Democrats are included.

Coleman had twice as many challenges pending before the board as Franken, giving the Democrat more opportunities to pick up votes.

The board — Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, two state Supreme Court justices and two Ramsey County judges — hopes to finish its review of ballots by Friday. State law allows decisions by majority vote on the panel, said Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann.

In addition to the ballots before the panel, the candidates had withdrawn some 5,000 challenges of other ballots in recent days. Those ballots were kept out of the count while being challenged and had not yet been tallied for either candidate.

Among the issues facing the board members are whether partially filled oval spaces on ballots should count and whether a voter's initials could be construed as a deliberate attempt to identify a ballot.

Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin confronted one with a full Coleman oval and initials near a partially filled Franken oval.

"I can't tell whether it means they're trying to tell us they goofed when they started voting for Franken," said Gearin.

As the board examined each ballot, its image was projected on overhead screens for the campaign representatives, media and the public.

The board allowed candidates' attorneys to interject from time to time but stressed that they didn't want arguments over every call.

"One of the things that's going to take forever is if the parties think we're going to need all these things explained," said Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, a board member.

Besides the challenged ballots, legal wrangling continues over an estimated 1,600 absentee ballots that were improperly rejected on Election Day. The canvassing board earlier told counties to count those ballots, but the Coleman campaign on Monday asked the state Supreme Court to block that. The high court scheduled a hearing for Wednesday.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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