Democrat Al Franken edged ahead of Republican incumbent Norm Coleman on Friday for the first time in Minnesota’s long-running U.S. Senate recount. Franken opened up a slight lead by the end of the fourth day of a state Canvassing Board meeting to decide the fate of hundreds of disputed ballots. The change was notable because Coleman led Franken in election night returns and also held a 188-vote lead before the board took up challenged ballots. But its significance was limited, with the possibility the lead could change again before the long recount ends.
The state Canvassing Board wrapped up work Friday in the phase of the recount that resolves disputed ballots. Franken led by 262 votes.
But Coleman and Franken are waiting to see how much they gain from some 5,000 challenges that they withdrew, and the board won’t allocate those until Monday.
The outcome of the recount also depends on an estimated 1,600 absentee ballots that were improperly rejected. The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that those ballots must be counted, and set a Dec. 31 deadline for counties to work with the candidates to identify and count them.
The high court ruling virtually guaranteed that the recount would sprawl into the new year. With Congress set to convene Jan. 6, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said his staff was researching the possibility of a temporary appointment.
But Pawlenty said it was unlikely he would do so because he expected the recount would be resolved by then.
Marc Elias, Franken’s attorney, said the Democrat had expected to take the lead, and that he was winning even if the numbers kept fluctuating.
Coleman spokesman Mark Drake said Franken’s lead was temporary.
"We encourage everyone to just hang on until the process is finished," Drake said in a statement. "When it is finished, Norm Coleman will still lead, and we believe, be re-elected to the United States Senate."
Before the five-member canvassing board began reviewing challenges Friday, it rejected a request from the Coleman campaign to disqualify hundreds of ballots that the campaign argued were duplicates and had been counted twice.
G. Barry Anderson, a Supreme Court justice serving on the board, said the issue was not the board’s to decide.
"While I think there is a serious issue here, the location, extent and remedy lie elsewhere," Anderson said.
Coleman’s campaign later filed a petition with the state Supreme Court asking it to block the board from including possibly double-counted ballots. The campaign also asked the court to order that the issue of duplicate ballots be handled in each county as part of the process to identify erroneously rejected absentees.
At the end of the day Friday, the high court scheduled oral arguments on that matter for Tuesday.
Tony Trimble, attorney for Coleman, said the campaign estimated Franken could gain 50 votes from the duplicate ballots. "For them, in a close race, that’s like gold," Trimble said.
Elias said the Coleman campaign over-emphasized the duplicate issue and that the petition showed it was worried about falling behind.