The board that will determine whether Republican Norm Coleman or Democrat Al Franken won Minnesota's Senate race will be "extraordinarily nonpartisan," according to its new chairman.
Democratic State secretary of State Mark Ritchie chose a canvassing board Wednesday that includes himself, two state Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and two county judges.
The board is charged with certifying vote totals and settling differences over disputed ballots once local officials complete their recount.
Coleman currently leads by 206 votes out of 2.9 million — a margin of seven-thousandths of 1 percent, small enough to trigger an automatic recount.
The board meets Tuesday to certify the machine-counted tally before officially ordering the manual recount that will start the next day. A month later, the panel will reconvene to determine the fate of ballots challenged during the recount.
Besides Ritchie, a Democrat, the board includes two Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty — Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and Justice G. Barry Anderson — and Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin and her deputy, Edward Cleary.
Gearin's politics are unclear; she was elected in a non-partisan race in 1986 and declines to talk about her politics. Cleary was appointed in 2002 by then-Gov. Jesse Ventura, an Independence Party member.
Servants of the people
At a news conference Wednesday, Ritchie downplayed the political ties of the canvassing board members, including himself.
"When they put on the robe, they stop being of a political party and they start being servants of the people of Minnesota and I feel the same way when I took the oath of office and walked through the door," Ritchie said. He added, "I can promise you and the citizens that this is going to be run in an extraordinarily nonpartisan way."
Fritz Knaak, Coleman's lead lawyer, said he was comfortable with the board's makeup. "The people of this state should feel good about who's on the panel," he said.
Franken spokesman Andy Barr jabbed at Coleman supporters who have raised questions about Ritchie's impartiality.
"I think we can all now see that their claims were just political posturing," Barr said. "Today, Mark Ritchie has named two partisan Republican Supreme Court justices to the state canvassing board."
The recount action will be spread around the state. Ritchie's office has identified 74 recount sites and predicts that will grow to as many as 120 by next week.
There were 2.92 million estimated voters on Election Day, but 2.88 million recorded Senate votes. Some voters may have intentionally skipped the race, but officials expect the hand count to show votes that the optical-scan machines didn't pick up. Local elections officials are due to receive recount training on Thursday.
Depending on the size of the county, the local counts will take anywhere from a day to a couple of weeks. Some places won't start their count until Nov. 24.
The secretary of state's office wants all the local counts done by Dec. 5, although it stopped short of saying it was a hard deadline.