ST. PAUL, Minn. – In a partial victory for the Democrats, Minnesota's Supreme Court ordered local election officials Thursday to send out new absentee ballots to people who ask to change their Senate vote in the wake of Sen. Paul Wellstone's death.
The ruling fell well short of what the Democrats wanted: throwing out all absentee votes already cast and mailing new ballots to everyone, whether they asked for a new one or not.
The decision came after former Vice President Walter Mondale kicked off a lightning five-day campaign against Republican Norm Coleman as the Democrats' last-minute stand-in for Wellstone, who was killed in a plane crash last week while locked in a tight re-election race vital to control of the Senate.
Mondale said he planned to travel the state and would engage Coleman in a single debate before Tuesday's election.
"I hope people will recognize what I face here," the 74-year-old former vice president said a day after party officials chose him as their new candidate. "I want to reintroduce myself and I want to listen."
Coleman, 53, hopped aboard a bus to visit five cities and continued to note the age difference between the candidates. At a Moorhead restaurant, Coleman talked of his own vitality and then told supporters it would be a close race.
"Give me everything you've got," Coleman said.
Mondale's campaign released a letter from his doctor declaring him in "excellent shape" even though he lost partial vision in his right eye as a result of a blood clot in February. Mondale said he still can read and drive.
The abbreviated campaign began in earnest six days after Wellstone, his wife, daughter and five others were killed. A poll suggests Mondale has a slight lead over Coleman, a former St. Paul mayor.
Under a plan that state officials earlier this week said was dictated by state law, absentee votes that had been cast for Wellstone before his death would not be counted, and voters who wanted to cast a new ballot would have to go to their local election office and request one.
But the Democrats complained that would be too inconvenient for many voters and would disenfranchise those who marked their ballots for Wellstone.
The Republicans opposed a blanket re-mailing but told the high court they had no objection to sending new ballots to anyone who requested them, which was the Democrats' fallback position.
The high court issued its ruling just hours after hearing arguments, and the seven justices did not detail their reasoning.
Even with the court's quick ruling, however, there is no guarantee voters will get a new ballot in time to return it before the polls close on Tuesday.
"It's not our plan A, but it's plan B," said Democratic Party lawyer Alan Weinblatt.
Weinblatt had asked the court to make replacement absentee ballots available by any means — Web site, fax, even e-mail. But the court order authorized election officials to use traditional mail.
"If people call, we will mail them Saturday, which means they will probably go out Monday morning," said Pam Heeren, the auditor in Hubbard County. "Is there time to get to where they need to go and back? I doubt it. I understand what they are trying to do, but there's so little time."
Almost 4.5 percent of voters cast absentee ballots in Minnesota in 1998, the last non-presidential election year, and the number is expected to grow this year.
Even apart from the legal dispute, state and county officials warned that the results of Tuesday's election will be delayed for hours.
They said there is not enough time to test optical scanners to make sure they can properly read a supplemental ballot for the Mondale-Coleman race, meaning they must be hand-counted.