Norm Coleman, the former and perhaps future senior senator from Minnesota, sat down with National Review Online Tuesday afternoon. At the moment, he trails his Democratic challenger, Al Franken, by 225 votes in the election that took place in November. But somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 absentee ballots may be added into the mix, pending the outcome of Coleman’s court challenge to the election result. The court’s ruling may change the outcome — or it may not.
“We’re very close to finishing our case,” Coleman told NRO, adding that he had just come from reading his attorneys’ latest notes on the case. “I get updated notes every morning and afternoon,” he said.
In our conversation, Coleman outlined several of the issues involved in the rejection of absentee ballots. His common theme: The court cannot now apply a stricter standard to the ballots in Republican areas, after the state Canvasing Board added 933 ballots from predominantly Democratic areas that were not scrutinized as closely.
A few examples of the types of ballots that were rejected:
- Unregistered Witness: Minnesota law requires that both an absentee voter and his or her signing witness be registered voters. Coleman argues that this rule was not applied uniformly.
Republican-leaning Carver County, for example, had over 180 ballots rejected because the signing witness was not registered at the time he signed. (There may be cases in which the witness registered later, which is another issue before the court.) Coleman said there were a total of 300 such rejected ballots exist throughout the state.
“But here’s the worst part of it,” he says. “The City of Minneapolis had over 25,000 absentee ballots. Do you know how many were rejected because the witness was not registered? Zero. The City of St. Paul . . . zero. Duluth, Minnesota, Saint Louis County . . . zero. So what you have is, in many [Democratic-leaning] places through the state, you have ballots in where they don’t even look [at the witness].”
- Signature Mismatch: There was also the issue of mismatched (or allegedly mismatched) signatures on ballots. Republican counties, Coleman said, rejected hundreds of ballots on these grounds, whereas Democratic counties were extremely lenient. “Do you know how many ballots were rejected in the city of Minneapolis for signature mismatch? I shouldn’t say zero, but I’m sure it’s less than ten.”
- Government Error: Another category of rejected absentee ballot are those that were rejected because of a government official’s error. For example, there were cases in which a government official accepted an unsigned application for an absentee ballot, and dispensed the ballot anyway. Especially in Republican areas, Coleman said, the corresponding ballots were later rejected, on the grounds that the application was unsigned. The law requiring a signature on both the application and the ballot, he said, was not uniformly applied in Democratic areas. “Again, you go back to some of these urban counties, and their policy is, if the government made the error, we count the ballot,” Coleman said.
Coleman described his overall legal situation before the court in this way: “One of the challenges we have here is that in the heavily Democratic areas, their view of the election was to enfranchise folks — to let them vote. They’re not worried about signature mismatch, they’re not worried about whether the witness wasn’t registered, they’re not worried about whether the application was signed.” If the court takes a strict interpretation of the remaining crop of rejected absentees, Coleman asserted that some votes will go uncounted which would have been counted, had they only been cast in a different county. “[W]e usually like strict construction, but when applied uniformly.” This is an equal protection argument reminiscent of the Bush v. Gore case.
As he did a few weeks ago in a conference call, Coleman again expressed confidence that the next group of ballots added to the count would help him, not hurt him. The earlier group of 933 absentee ballots came mostly from Democratic areas. They favored Franken, giving him a net margin of 175 votes over Coleman. But Coleman said that the next set of added ballots should lean in his direction. “Are those others principally in Republican areas? Yeah, because those are the ballots that haven’t been opened yet,” he said.
On this Coleman bases his hopes of victory. In the meantime, he wants to remind his fellow Republicans of how important his seat is. “Tom Harkin has said they’re waiting for Al Franken to get into the Senate so that they can pass Card Check. I’m the vote that will ensure the American economy isn’t torn apart by having workers lose their right to vote in a secret ballot election,” he said. “That’s pretty important.” Democrats currently have 58 votes for card check, and just one Republican senator — Arlen Specter — crossed party lines to vote for it last year.
Another, more lighthearted question: given that his job situation is obviously up in the air, what has Coleman been doing with himself lately? After jokingly referring to himself as a “displaced worker,” he told me, “I’m not one of the millionaires in the Senate.” Indeed, his only listed asset in 2008 was an IRA worth between $500,000 and $1 million. (Senators’ home values are exempt from disclosure.)
When he is not dealing with matters related to the trial, Coleman said he has contracted with the Republican Jewish Coalition to give speeches around the country (“to pay the mortgage”) and he has been working on policy issues in preparation, he hopes, for resuming his Senate career.