ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Democrat Al Franken widened his lead in the Minnesota Senate race to 312 votes on Tuesday as previously rejected absentee ballots were added to the race.

Franken did better than Republican Norm Coleman by a nearly 2-to-1 margin as the ballots were opened and counted at the Minnesota Judicial Center. A three-judge panel had ruled earlier that 351 ballots had been improperly rejected during the election and should be restored to the race.

The judges have yet to settle some claims in Coleman's lawsuit over the statewide recount, but the absentees were the key issue that could have given Coleman enough votes to overtake Franken.

Outside the courtroom, Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg minimized the new margin because an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court was assured.

"What happened today in the sphere of this election is really inconsequential," he said. "There's a much larger universe of ballots that should be opened."

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Franken attorney Marc Elias said he doubted an appeal would change the result.

"The problem that Senator Coleman has is he lost fair and square," Elias said. "He lost because more people voted for Al Franken than voted for Norm Coleman. No amount of lawyering or sophisticated legal arguments is going to change that."

When the trial of Coleman's lawsuit began in late January, his attorneys acknowledged that absentees were the critical element.

Coleman had originally argued to have more than 4,800 absentee ballots added to the race, which by the end fell to 1,360. But the judges admitted far fewer, saying they had carefully reviewed each ballot to make sure voters had complied with state and federal law.

The pending issues in Coleman's suit include a request to invalidate votes from a Minneapolis precinct where ballots were lost between Election Day and the recount. A state board previously decided to rely on the machine count for the precinct.

Coleman also claimed poll workers made mistakes when making duplicate copies of damaged ballots. The error could have put both versions in the recount.

Combined, the matters could mean a swing of 100 votes.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat, welcomed an appeal. He said he thinks the state's highest court could provide closure. He added that once those justices rule, an election certificate should be issued.

Ritchie must countersign a certificate that originates in Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office. Pawlenty has said he'll await direction from the courts before granting the certificate and he has left open the possibility of deferring one if the federal courts get involved.