Restive onlookers waiting for a three-judge panel to issue a ruling in Minnesota’s Al Franken-Norm Coleman election contest say they’re looking for “white smoke” from the judges’ chambers to alert them to a decision.
The humorous reference to the papal election process, which uses white smoke to signal the selection of a new pope, is but one indication of the rising tension that accompanies each hour that passes without a decision.
Last week, both sides in the case made their final arguments and rested their cases. The judges’ deliberations are occurring behind closed doors, and no one can say how long it will take them to issue a ruling.
There are several options available to the panel to resolve an election that has dragged on now for four months beyond Election Day. They could opt to accept a Franken motion to have the Coleman challenged dismissed on the grounds that his attorneys have failed to uncover systemic problems with the election.
Coleman’s attorneys have presented the court with 1,360 rejected ballots it would like to have counted. How many of those ballots will actually be counted is up to the judicial panel to determine.
If the panel concludes the number of votes in play is less than Franken’s current lead, dismissal would appear to be an option.
More likely than outright dismissal, however, is a ruling that specifies which blocks of new votes should be counted. Those ballots would then presumably be brought to a central location and tallied. State officials have said that process could take four days.
Once the new ballots are counted and added to the existing totals, the panel would announce its findings and declare a winner.
Franken has an official lead of 225 votes. But based on earlier rulings by the panel, Franken’s actual margin unofficially stands at about 260 ballots. That’s out of 2.9 million ballots cast, a razor-thin difference that has lent drama to each twist and turn during the seven-week-long election contest.
The stakes are high: A Franken victory would give Democrats 59 votes in the Senate, making it much easier to get President Obama’s ambitious social and economic agenda through Congress.
The Senate’s recent fight over the $410 billion omnibus bill highlighted the importance of every vote in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was forced to postpone a vote on the measure for several days because he lacked the 60 votes required to shut off debate.
Coleman’s attorneys have signaled that they may appeal an adverse ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which would delay any outcome. Minnesota law prohibits issuing a certificate of election to any candidate until all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.
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