Key Coleman witness tossed from Minn. Senate trial

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- An argument that Republican Norm Coleman hoped would draw him closer to Democrat Al Franken suffered a hard blow Wednesday in the Minnesota Senate trial when the judges threw out the testimony of the only witness to claim seeing errors that may have given some people two votes.

The testimony of Minneapolis election judge Pamela Howell was thrown out because she had supplied materials to Coleman's legal team that weren't given to Franken's lawyers. The judges deemed that a violation of civil trial procedures.

The double-counting argument is an important element of Coleman's case. He said Franken benefited from more than 100 votes from people who had two ballots counted. Coleman's lawyers want the court to subtract the votes from Franken's tally and reduce the 225-vote lead he had after the recount.

Coleman also is looking to gain votes by arguing that hundreds of rejected absentee ballots should be counted.

Howell, a Republican, is the only Coleman witness who said she was present when duplicated ballots without proper markings were fed through counting machines.

Ballots that are torn, smudged, crumpled or contain votes for only federal offices are sometimes spit out by vote-counting machines, prompting local elections officials to fill out an identical ballot that can be fed through. They're supposed to be marked with corresponding tags, such as "Original 7" and "Duplicate 7," with the original versions placed in a sealed envelope.

The statewide recount gave preference to original ballots because they were a truer reflection of a voter's intent. But the number of duplicates and originals for some precincts didn't match up. By counting originals without lining them up with corresponding duplicates, Coleman alleges some voters got two votes.

Howell told the court of problems in the south Minneapolis precinct she oversaw as a head election judge. She testified that colleagues were feeding duplicated ballots through tabulating machines when one gasped. "'Oh no! We forgot to label the ballots.'"

"We looked at each other and the thoughts ran through my head about what can we do to retrieve and label them or whatever. And at that point they were mixed up with the other ballots."

In cross-examination by Franken lawyer David Lillehaug, Howell said she collected her thoughts in writing and gave copies to Coleman's lawyers. But the Coleman team didn't share her writings with Franken's lawyers, who learned about them during Howell's testimony.

After a recess, Judge Elizabeth Hayden ruled on behalf of the three-judge panel that Coleman's lawyers didn't abide by civil trial rules. That, she said, was enough to exclude Howell's testimony entirely.

Coleman's attorneys said Howell's writings were benign and that the court's response was harsh, but that they would use other evidence to make their point.

The stir over Howell upstaged the start of testimony by Minneapolis elections director Cindy Reichert. She is a key figure because her city was a flashpoint in the recount.

Reichert was asked about efforts to locate a packet of ballots declared missing during the recount. To compensate for the 133 ballots said to be lost, the state went with Election Night numbers for the precinct. That decision kept Franken from losing 46 net votes.

She will resume her place on the stand Thursday.

Another witness, state elections director Gary Poser, was kept off the stand as attorneys argued behind closed doors over the admissibility of documents he could be asked about. He caught an afternoon flight to Orlando for an election officers conference and won't be available to finish his testimony until next week.

Coleman's lawyers said it will be impossible to meet a Friday goal of finishing presentation of their evidence. It delays the timetable for Franken's team to argue its case that the recount result showing him on top was valid.

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