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Senate suit winds down with ballot review

ST. PAUL -- A final phase of the U.S. Senate election trial came with its own bit of ballot confusion.

A group of 400 absentee ballots that were to be reviewed for possible counting today was narrowed slightly when local officials said 13 of the ballots already were counted.

After 42 counties responded to the court's request for ballot documents, the three-judge panel deciding former Sen. Norm Coleman's election lawsuit today will review that stack of ballots and likely add some votes to the election tally.

Coleman is seeking to overturn Democrat Al Franken's 225-vote recount victory, but Franken's lawyers are optimistic his lead will be upheld and Coleman already has signaled an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

As the state-court case is winding down, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Monday legal appeals could delay the seating of Minnesota's second senator for "a few more months."

The three-judge panel last week ordered ballots sent to St. Paul from around the state, and a final batch of ballots -- from Carlton, Freeborn and Wright counties -- arrived Monday at Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's office.

The nearly 400 unopened absentee ballots -- enclosed in sealed envelopes -- were handed over to the court. The judges reviewed the ballot envelopes behind closed doors Monday before deciding which ballot envelopes they want sent to the courtroom this morning.

In open court, staff from Ritchie's office will sort, open and count ballots that the judges decide should be part of the tally.

The judges asked for eight ballots from Washington County, but one of those -- belonging to Brenda Lou Peavie of Woodbury -- was counted during the Senate recount, said Kevin Corbid, a Washington County election official.

"My assumption is there was a lot of names and a lot of documents and I imagine it was a huge task to try to get this right," Corbid said. "My guess is they weren't aware it was already counted."

Corbid did not send the counted ballot, but included with the rest of the ballots a document explaining that one already has been tallied.

Two of the 40 ballots sought from St. Louis County were included in the recount tally, said Lisa Athey of the county auditor's office. Those two ballots belonged to Duluth residents Janet George and Robert Reese, Athey said, adding it is not clear why the judges requested them.

"Maybe they were kind of overwhelmed," said Athey, whose county sent 38 other ballot envelopes to the court.

Dakota County sent 54 of the 55 ballot envelopes requested, because one already was counted, said Joel Beckman, a county election official.

Absentee ballots rejected during the election were a key issue in the five-week trial that ended last month. The judges have not ruled on two other complaints in Coleman's lawsuit -- that ballots in select precincts were counted twice and that votes from a Minneapolis precinct should not be part of the tally because those ballots are missing.

Coleman and his lawyers already say they plan to appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court. That appeal would come after the three judges -- Kurt Marben of Pennington County, Denise Reilly of Hennepin County and Elizabeth Hayden of Stearns County -- issue their final ruling.

Pawlenty, a Republican, said Monday in a cable television interview that he will not sign an election certificate for either candidate before any state-level appeal is resolved.

"It's pretty clear one side or the other's going to take that next step and it wouldn't be appropriate for me or anyone else to step in front of it," Pawlenty told MSNBC. "It's frustrating that this is taking so long. But we need a proper and just and accurate and legal result and it looks like it's going to take a few more months to get that."

Coleman has not ruled out taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if he loses his state-court challenges.