ST. PAUL, Minn. — Democratic candidate Al Franken now holds a 49-vote lead over Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in Minnesota's Senate race, but wrangling over inclusion of absentee ballots continued Tuesday and any final determination of a winner was still days or weeks away.
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By this time next week, the state board overseeing the recount expects to declare a winner in the bruising campaign between Franken, a former "Saturday Night Live" cast member, and the incumbent. But even then, the race won't be over if the losing party challenges the outcome in court.
Franken's lead grew by a few votes Tuesday when the state Canvassing Board finished allocating to each candidate his share of thousands of ballots that had been held up because of candidate challenges. While Franken's lead was put at 50 in the morning, the secretary of state's office revised that figure to 49 Tuesday evening.
"We are well into the fourth quarter," said Marc Elias, an attorney for Franken. "We are a few yards from the end zone, but we feel good about being able to get it in."
Allegations of irregularities
Coleman attorney Tony Trimble said his client could still overtake Franken, either during the count of absentee ballots or in the expected court case. Coleman's campaign has alleged irregularities in the counting of some ballots in Democratic strongholds.
"We're faced with an artificial Franken lead," he said.
Meanwhile, officials at the local level began determining which of hundreds of yet-unopened absentee ballots should be counted. They had initially been rejected by election officials because of minor but not disqualifying errors, such as a signature on a ballot that doesn't match the one on file with the county.
The size of that pile is in dispute but is thought to be around 1,350. Coleman's campaign is challenging some of those ballots and wants to add another 650 to the stack.
Reports from some of the regional meeting sites early Tuesday suggested gridlock, with the campaigns not seeing eye to eye.
"Things are not going as smoothly as we hoped," said Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann.
Sherburne County officials ran through its 18 ballots, and the campaigns allowed 15 to move ahead for counting. Other counties also made headway.
In Anoka County, the review never got started because the two campaigns couldn't agree on which ballots to consider. Coleman's camp pressed for a bigger pool and Franken's representatives wouldn't go beyond the 35 ballots officials previously identified as being eligible for counting.
'Chaotic and questionable'
The Coleman campaign is troubled by inconsistencies from county to county, Trimble said.
"We're seeing the entire process becoming chaotic and questionable," he said.
In St. Louis County, where election officials had identified 161 ballots they said were rejected for no lawful reason, Coleman's campaign Tuesday challenged the inclusion of dozens of them.
One belonged to Duluth resident Mary Bell, who told the Duluth News Tribune that her husband served as her witness on the absentee ballot but put a date on the outside of the envelope that didn't match hers.
"He's in the doghouse now," Bell said with a laugh. "But it does make me angry that my vote might not get counted because of this."
She wouldn't say who got her Senate vote. That's a common mystery with these ballots because they remain sealed.
The absentee ballots in question were all rejected on or before Election Day, but later deemed to be incorrectly disqualified.
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