More than six weeks after the Nov. 4 election, Democratic challenger Al Franken threatened to take his first lead Thursday over incumbent GOP Sen. Norm Coleman in the recount of votes in the hotly contested Minnesota Senate race.
The State Canvassing Board ended its day Thursday with Franken having moved within just five votes of Coleman.
If Franken ultimately emerges the winner, he will be the 59th Democratic vote in the U.S. Senate, putting President-elect Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid just one vote away from being able to cut off a filibuster on any issue, as they work to push Obama’s ambitious legislative agenda through Congress.
Coleman began Thursday with a 358-vote lead. But by 1 p.m., his advantage had dwindled to just 195 votes out of nearly 3 million votes cast on Election Day. The slide continued until about 6 p.m. Eastern time, when the board called it a day, with Coleman clinging to a five-vote margin.
Franken had been expected to cut deeply into Coleman’s lead Thursday, because all Franken ballot challenges were completed Wednesday. On Thursday, the Canvassing Board reviewed only challenges to votes for Franken, as well as challenges to ballots that could not be assigned to either candidate.
There was no immediate reaction from the Coleman camp to the day’s events, which appeared to push Franken on the brink of leading the race for the first time.
The pace of the Canvassing Board review accelerated markedly Thursday, as the five-member board grew more familiar with the standards used to evaluate the ballots. Some ballots were awarded to Franken after only a few seconds of deliberation. The fate of other ballots was discussed for a minute or more.
By day’s end, it was unclear how many more Coleman challenges remained to be reviewed on Friday — a key question, given the strong trends working against Coleman.
The Canvassing Board has said it hopes to wrap up its review Friday.
Even after the Coleman challenges are completed, however, many thousands of votes will remain to be counted. So even if Coleman falls behind as current trends clearly suggest, Coleman supporters can harbor hope that more than enough votes remain to flip the outcome back in their candidate’s favor.
Among the ballots still to be counted: As many as 1,600 improperly rejected absentee ballots. The state Supreme Court is expected to rule any day on whether local election officials should add those votes into their totals, or simply set them aside for further review during the plethora of lawsuits the razor-thin recount is expected to generate. About 5,000 votes that were challenged initially, and therefore not counted, before the candidates withdrew their challenges. Those votes now must be added back into the totals. Votes the Canvassing Board has relegated to blue and green folders. The blue folder contains duplicate votes — ballots that were damaged or otherwise flawed in a way that required the creation of a duplicate ballot on Election Day. The Coleman legal team has challenged the duplicate votes, out of concern that both the original ballot and the duplicate ballot may have been counted. The votes in the green folders are “incident-report” ballots that include disputed ballots that are not duplicates. The number of votes in the green and blue folders remains unknown.
The U.S. Senate is scheduled to meet on Jan. 6 to seat its members, but the court cases associated with the Minnesota recount are likely to extend well beyond that date. If Coleman wins by a narrow margin, sources say, the Democratic-controlled Senate may not accept the Minnesota results.
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