ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- City and county workers across Minnesota began a laborious recount Wednesday of more than 2.9 million ballots in the tight U.S. Senate contest between incumbent Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken.
They have until Dec. 5 to complete the recount.
The Minnesota recount is required under state law because the votes cast for Coleman and Franken differed by less than one-half of 1 percent. Coleman's 215-vote lead heading into the recount translated to 0.008 percent.
The count of nearly 300,000 ballots in Ramsey County - seat of the Minnesota state Capitol - is likely to take several days.
Before the sorting began, county elections manager Joe Mansky laid out the task and the ground rules: 30,000 ballots to count each day, or one every five seconds for each counter. No one but county election employees or election judges may touch the ballots. No food or drink, no talking.
"What we're going to be looking for today is any ballots where the voter intent is not absolutely clear," Mansky said. "There are very, very few ballots on which we are not absolutely clear."
He also said counting would take place six hours a day. "There is a limited amount of time that you can count or pile ballots without getting a little crazy," Mansky said.
Minnesota's race looms large in the Washington power struggle. Depending on another undecided contest in Georgia, the Minnesota outcome could determine if Democrats attain a 60-seat majority that would enable them to overcome Republican filibusters.
On Tuesday, Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest serving Republican in Senate history, narrowly lost his re-election bid in Alaska. His defeat by Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich gives Democrats 58 seats, when two independents who align with Democrats are included.
Minnesota's Canvassing Board on Tuesday postponed a decision on how to handle rejected absentee ballots, wanting more time to consider arguments over the absentee ballots. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said the panel will convene again next week.
Franken is pressing to include absentee ballots his campaign says were rejected on technicalities. Campaign lawyer David Lillehaug argued the board has the power to add them to the count.
"They have a right to have official mistakes corrected and their votes counted. Not later, but now," he said of voters in that situation. "This board has the full authority, and indeed we submit, the obligation to do exactly that."
Coleman's campaign contends that rejected ballots should be kept from the recount and considered only if the election result winds up in court.
"There is no precedent for what's being requested of this body by the Franken campaign and we see no reason why a different procedure should be followed at this late juncture in our history," said Fritz Knaak, Coleman's lead attorney.
On the Net:
Minnesota Secretary of State: http://www.sos.state.mn.us