With votes for comedian Al Franken mysteriously appearing out of thin air, steadily narrowing the gap between him and Sen. Norm Coleman, the stench of corruption becomes more and more pungent.
Asked blogger John Hinderaker: "What's going on in Minnesota?" as a steady stream of late-arriving votes have reduced Coleman's lead over Franken from 726 votes with 100 percent of precincts reporting on Wednesday morning, to 221 votes on Sunday morning, according to The Associated Press.
Adding to the problems faced by the Coleman campaign was a ruling denying Coleman's attempt to block some absentee ballots from being counted. Their argument for a temporary restraining order was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds by Kathleen Gearin, chief district court judge in Ramsey County.
The 32 Minneapolis ballots were part of the normal delivery of absentee ballots late in the polling day, Election Director Cindy Reichert, a Democrat, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Reichert claims the ballots were retained when they couldn't be delivered because some polling places had shut down for the day. She said the ballots were kept sealed until other election duties were completed and were being counted Saturday afternoon, with results to be delivered to the state on Monday.
The Coleman campaign, however insisted that the integrity of the ballots "is in serious doubt."
The Star-Tribune reported that Franken's campaign accused Coleman of a "Saturday morning sneak attack" intended to short-circuit the counting of ballots. Coleman's campaign, however, said it merely wanted to delay the opening until it could be assured in a future hearing that the ballots were in the continuous possession of election officials.
According to the Coleman forces, the ballots were not counted on Election Day and were not kept in sealed boxes. It says the request was made amid "increasing questions about unexplained and improbable shifts in vote counts."
The most recent vote tally has Coleman leading Franken by only a couple hundred votes. A recount is planned.
Said the Coleman campaign in a statement: "As improbable and statistically dubious chunks of votes appear and disappear, overwhelmingly benefiting Al Franken, [We have] today filed a data practices request with county auditors and the Secretary of State requesting data related to Election Night results, records related to ballot security and information relating to all revisions made to the results since being reported on Election Night.
"Minnesota has a history of fair and clean elections," the campaign noted, "and we are committed to ensuring that this election is no different. That is why it is so troubling to us that instead of the normal slight changes in vote totals one would expect during this process, we are now seeing huge chunks of votes appearing and disappearing -- statistically dubious and improbable shifts that are overwhelmingly accruing to the benefit of Al Franken.
"And, as many of these unexplained and improbably vote swings are taking place on the Iron Range, we're asking that local and state election officials provide us with the necessary data to reassure the public that the canvassing process has not been tainted," said Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan.
Sheehan added that there are reports that during the night, "100 new ballots were reported to the Secretary of State's office from the Mountain Iron area. These previously unreported ballots contained 100 votes for President-elect Barack Obama and DFL candidate Al Franken.
"We have received messages from knowledgeable Minnesota readers who served as election judges. Their observations are far more helpful (and troubling) than anything that has appeared in the media. In the interest of supporting a continuing inquiring into what's happening in Minnesota, even if we can't answer the questions they raise, these messages should be aired."
They cited a report from one election judge who recalled that because of a communications snafu, the vote tallies could not be transmitted to the state electronically and that the top official in his voting district, a Democrat, simply took the results and carried them to the state in her car -- with no one to keep an eye on her.
Meanwhile, Coleman is using the state's open records law to ask Minnesota and all 87 counties for access to voting data and other records, questioning gains Franken has made since Election Day.
Sheehan complained of "statistically dubious and improbable shifts that are overwhelmingly accruing to the benefit of Al Franken."
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a member of Minnesota's Democratic-Farm-Labor party, said it was unfortunate that the Coleman campaign was questioning the integrity of the election, noting that adjustments are a normal part of the canvassing process.
Ritchie told the Weekly Standard that the vote totals are fluctuating because county election officials are correcting errors in the unofficial vote totals. "The most common issue is the transposition of numbers," Ritchie said. "Depending on the county and the circumstance, there are occasionally people late at night on Election Night, and 84 becomes a 48, and they might skip a digit."
Ritchie added that "there was a 1 left off of a number, so there was a hundred-vote error" -- the correction of which cut into Coleman's unofficial lead. When asked which county had seen this 100-vote shift toward Franken, Ritchie said it would be too difficult to look at the screenshots of the Web site -- static pictures of the site captured throughout the day -- and determine which county it was.
According to Ritchie, "when the recount begins there will be representatives [of the Franken and Coleman campaigns] there" to monitor the process, but "before the recount begins it is the job of the local county and city election officials to accurately determine the results." Ritchie said that most of those officials are elected and all are officially "nonpartisan."
Paul Tynjala, St. Louis County's director of elections, told the AP that the change in results from Mountain Iron was because of a human call-in error on election night that incorrectly gave Franken 406 votes, instead of 506 votes.
Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor, told the AP its analysis of the drop-off between the two races creates a "zone of uncertainty" that could become a focal point for the campaigns and election officials -- and agreed the numbers favor Franken.
"These numbers present a roadmap for a Franken challenge," he said. "It suggests there are about 10,000 votes in the largest Democratic counties that are potentially going to tilt in Franken's direction."
Minnesota ballots are fed into optical scanners, which depend on voters filling in ovals to make their choice.
Kim Brace, president of the consulting firm Election Data Services Inc., said there's no reason a ballot without a vote for a particular race would be rejected.
"Usually they're set to kick back to the voter if there is an overvote," said Brace, who has been an expert witness in court cases stemming from disputed elections. "But in most instances they're not set to kick back to the voter if there is an undervote. After all, the public has a right to not vote for somebody for a particular office."
Something funny is going on in Minnesota, and comedian Al Franken's forces are writing the comedy script.
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