Democrat Al Franken caught a couple of breaks Tuesday as the recount in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race drew closer to a finish, though not enough to undo Republican Sen. Norm Coleman's persistent lead.
As Ramsey County wrapped up its recount, officials there discovered and tallied 171 ballots that weren't counted on election night. Franken gained 37 votes on Coleman's lead.
Coleman led by 215 votes out of 2.9 million cast before the recount. The lead has bounced up and down since the recount began, but the exact margin is difficult to know because both sides have put thousands of ballots in limbo through challenges. The disputed ballots won't be sorted out until a canvassing board meeting that begins Dec. 16.
Through Tuesday, Coleman's margin was 303, a comparison made possible because counties are reporting recount numbers that compare directly with their precincts' Nov. 4 results. However, those numbers could still shift as the last counties complete their work by Friday.
Ramsey County elections chief Joe Mansky said the ballots were from a machine that broke down early on Election Day in a precinct in Maplewood. The machine was replaced, but the ballots in question weren't fed through again.
Franken gained 91 votes and Coleman gained 54. The rest went to other candidates.
"That's why we do the recount," Mansky said. "That's why we're doing everything by hand — so we can discover those kinds of errors."
Coleman's attorney, Fritz Knaak, said the campaign accepts Mansky's explanation but had lawyers double-checking the numbers. "We're looking into it," he said.
Marc Elias, Franken's attorney, said the revelation of new ballots underscored the importance of making sure that every vote is counted. "This is precisely why we have urged, as strongly as we have, every election official — at the county level, at the state level, everyone — look for any ballots that might be missing."
In a letter, the secretary of state's office directed Mansky to prepare a special report on the discovery for presentation to the Canvassing Board next week.
"We would like an explanation from you as to how this error was made and went unnoticed until now," Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann wrote. "Given the magnitude of the difference, we request that you take steps to re-verify the number of individuals who voted in Maplewood Precinct 6, to reassure both this office and the public that these newly found votes were validly cast."
Ramsey County, the state's second-largest, finished its recount on Tuesday; all of the state's 87 counties are supposed to finish by Friday. A belt of counties where Coleman fared well on Election Day were due to start their recounts Wednesday.
Franken got another glimmer of hope Tuesday when Gelbmann sent another letter to recount officials directing them to sort all absentee ballots into five piles — those rejected for one of four statutory reasons, and a fifth pile for those that appear to have been mistakenly rejected.
Franken's lawyers have indicated they might mount a legal challenge to add votes from rejected absentee ballots, after the Canvassing Board rejected a request to consider those ballots.
But Gelbmann wrote that none of the rejected absentee ballots should be counted for the time being.
"We simply are looking for the number of rejected absentee ballots that were legitimately rejected ... and the number of rejected absentee ballots that were mistakenly rejected," he wrote.
In St. Paul, Mansky said election officials already sorted through the ballots and found 32 ballots that appeared to have been rejected for an invalid reason.