The race between incumbent GOP Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken grows curiouser and curiouser.
Minnesota election officials late Wednesday afternoon uncovered more improperly tallied ballots that could swing the result.
Minneapolis city elections director Cindy Reichert reported that 133 votes cast on Election Day had been double counted -- that is, they were run twice through the optical scan machines that tabulate the vote.
Correcting the error means that the tally votes cast in the election will now be reduced by 133. Duplicate votes cast either for Franken or Coleman will be eliminated.
That revelation adds to a growing sense of chaos surrounding the recount. In another error discovered yesterday, both campaigns learned that, due to a combination of machine and human error, 171 ballots cast in Ramsey County had not been counted.
When those votes were counted, Franken had a net gain of 37 votes. That reduced Coleman’s lead to 303 votes out of about 3 million votes cast. About 138,000 votes have yet to be recounted.
The outcome of the Minnesota Senate race will determine whether Democrats hold a majority of 59 or 58 seats in the Senate. A Franken victory would make it easier to gather the 60 votes Senate Democrats need to cut off debate and expedite President-elect Barack Obama’s legislative agenda through Congress.
The swing of only a handful of votes in Minnesota could tempt the U.S. Senate to intervene, and possibly conduct an investigation to ensure that all ballots were counted properly.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has already issued a strong warning to Minnesota election officials that any “disenfranchisement” of voters will not be tolerated.
State election officials have not yet announced how the reversal of the double-counting error will impact the vote totals. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, however, is reporting that Franken will suffer a net loss of as many as 46 votes. That could prove to be a decisive blow to the electoral hopes of the comedian-turned-politician.
In response to the latest snafu, Franken campaign officials are issuing protests loud enough to be heard all the way to Washington -- which may be the point.
Franken communications director Andy Barr is calling the latest turn of events “an incredible breach of the democratic process,” reports MinnesotaIndependent.com. But election officials are defending their process.
"The reason we do hand recounts of the voted ballots is to find human errors," Reichert told the Star-Tribune on Wednesday. "We believe there were human errors made in this precinct. The vote totals that we counted on the ballots are what is being submitted to the Secretary of State's office."
Earlier, Franken attorneys claimed he actually enjoyed a 22-vote lead in the recount, compared to the 303-vote deficit being reported by the secretary of state.
The state’s official recount tally, however, does not include the approximately 5,000-6,000 ballots that have been challenged by the campaigns. While some experts say the determination of those ballots is unlikely to change the outcome, Franken campaign officials say their unofficial tabulation of challenged votes accounts for the lead that they claim to have.
“The fate of the race likely rests in the hands of how these 6,000 challenged ballots shake out,” reports Washington Post political reporter Chris Cillizza.
The recount is scheduled to be completed by Friday. The State Canvassing Board will begin determining the fate of the challenged ballots on Dec. 16, a process expected to only take a few days. Experts believe lawsuits will inevitably follow certification of a winner, and the U.S. Senate is free to accept or challenge the state’s certification as well.
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