Partial resolution: Franken is declared the winner

Finally, some resolution in Minnesota’s Senate race!

Just hours after the state Supreme Court rejected Norm Coleman’s final attempt to delay a declaration of the November 4th vote’s results, the canvassing board met today to declare Al Franken the winner by a margin of 225 votes, or 0.0077%.

The canvassing board’s declaration completes the recount process and it takes the election out of the hands of Minnesota’s election officials.

This is is a remarkable development given that Coleman was in the lead from the night of November 4th all the way until December 20th (in fact, many Democrats had lost hope that Franken could emerge victorious). And Franken wasted no time before declaring victory. “After 62 days of careful and painstaking hand inspection of nearly 3 million ballots, after hours and hours of hard work by election officials and volunteers across this state, I am proud to stand before you as the next Senator from Minnesota,” he said in a press conference held on the porch of his house.

But this is not the final word: Minnesota is a rare state in which an election’s certification is not considered final if a contest is filed in court within 7 days - and Coleman is expected to do just that, preventing a “certificate of election” from being issued. The election will thus be thrown to the courts in a process that could last month.

Unfortunately for Coleman, his court prospects seem far bleaker today than they did just a week ago. Over this past week-end, the count of more than 900 improperly rejected absentee ballots increased Franken’s edge from 49 to 225 votes - a far more daunting deficit for Coleman to overcome in an election contest.

Coleman is expected to press three separate issues:

  1. Coleman wants the count of 133 Minneapolis ballots that went missing by the time of the manual recount to be tossed out. For Coleman to win this lawsuit would cost Franken 46 votes.
  2. Coleman argues that as many as 150 ballots whose original is missing have been counted twice. Franken responds that throwing out those ballots would risk disenfranchise dozens of voters since there is no evidence that any of the ballots have been double-counted. The Coleman camp claims that it would gain about 110 votes if a court were to toss out these ballots.
  3. Coleman wants an additional 650 rejected absentee ballots to be counted. These ballots come from Republican areas, and they were not included in the 1,350 absentee ballots that county-level election officials found had been improperly rejected. If Coleman were to win a lawsuit on this issue, it is unknown how the 650 ballots would break, but they would be highly unlikely to give Coleman a gain of 225 votes. Even if Coleman were to lead Franken by 20%, that would result in a gain of 130 votes.

This means two things:

  1. Coleman absolutely needs to win on his third claim. Merely getting favorable rulings on duplicate and missing ballots would close the gap by 156 votes at most, well short of Franken’s 225 lead. Unfortunately, Coleman’s absentee ballot claim is by far the weakest, and one the GOP looks to have added on at the last minute to have an excuse to go on. After all, many counties did take a look at some of these 650 ballots last week and found that they had been rejected properly. Coleman’s lawyers will now need to present evidence in court as to why these ballots were improperly rejected - and that’s going to be a difficult endeavor, to say the least.
  2. Even a favorable ruling on all of these issues could leave Coleman short of his Democratic rival. For instance, Coleman cannot catch up Franken if he only leads by 10% among the 650 absentee ballots he wants counted (that would equal to a gain of 65 votes, and 65 + 110 + 46 = 221 < 225).

In other words, Coleman’s bid is now a long-shot, and Democrats are closing in on their 59th Senate seat (making Mitch McConnell, Roger Wicker and Saxby Chambliss’s survivals all the more precious for the GOP). But Republicans could still prevent Senate Democrats from seating Al Franken until Coleman’s election contest is settled. That could keep Franken out of the Senate until well into 2009, costing Democrats one vote in their attempts to fight back against Republican filibusters.

Given that Obama’s seat is also likely to stay vacant pending courtroom drama, this could be enough of a reason for tough congressional battles like card-checks to be postponed until late this spring.

Update: Quite a strong statement from Harry Reid this evening: “Norm Coleman will never ever serve [again] in the Senate. He lost the election. He can stall things, but he’ll never serve in the Senate.”

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