Senate judges order count of 24 rejected ballots

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- The judges in Minnesota's Senate trial on Tuesday ordered that 24 previously rejected absentee ballots be opened and added to the race, setting the stage for counting perhaps thousands more such ballots and giving Republican Norm Coleman a shot at erasing Democrat Al Franken's 225-vote lead.

The ballots belong to voters who sued to have them counted. They have been identified as Franken supporters, but Coleman's lawyers were encouraged by the order because they want another 4,700 rejected absentee ballots to be counted.

"It's basically what we've been asking for all along," Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg said of the trial's first judicial order to count previously rejected ballots.

Franken's attorney, Marc Elias, also praised the order. "We're obviously pleased, having said all along that these witnesses should have their votes counted," he said.

The 24 voters "have provided unrebutted evidence that their absentee ballots were legally cast and should be counted," read the order signed by judges Elizabeth Hayden, Kurt Marben and Denise Reilly. The judges said they would determine later when the 24 absentees should be opened and added to the count.

The voters were among a larger group of 61 Franken voters who filed affidavits to get their rejected absentees counted, arguing that they followed all the rules and their ballots were rejected due to mistakes by county officials.

Under state law, there are four legal reasons to reject absentee ballots: a misplaced signature on the envelope; the name and address on the envelope don't match voter rolls; the voter isn't properly registered; or the voter also voted on Election Day. But the trial has established that at times, county officials have made mistakes in enforcing those rules.

The judges said the secrecy envelope holding a 25th ballot should be opened and checked for registration information, and the ballot should be counted if the registration is there.

The judges wrote that they didn't have enough evidence to order the counting of the remaining 36 ballots, but said those voters could present more evidence that their ballots should be counted.

Coleman's attorneys are in the process of trying to get about 4,700 rejected absentee ballots opened and counted. Ginsberg said Coleman's lawyers were likely to seek affidavits from voters whose ballots were rejected for reasons similar to those 24 the judges ordered counted.

Franken's attorneys have said many of the ballots Coleman wants counted were properly rejected. But later in the trial, Franken's attorneys are also expected to introduce a separate pile of about 700 rejected absentees they'd like to see counted.

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