Of the 87 counties in Minnesota, three have become a central focus in the increasingly contentious Senate race between Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and his Democratic challenger, Al Franken.
Hennepin, Ramsey and St. Louis are the largest counties in Minnesota, and each is a traditional Democratic stronghold.
On the night of the election, Nov. 4, Franken, a former comedian, held a double-digit percentage point lead over his opponent in all three counties.
Franken received 50.2 percent of the vote to Coleman's 36.2 percent in Hennepin County. He led Coleman 51.9 percent to 33.9 percent in Ramsey County, and in St. Louis County, he earned 54.7 percent of the vote to Coleman's 32.5 percent.
The Minnesota State Canvassing Board officiating over the recount did not certify these results, however, and on Wednesday election officials in every county begun the arduous task of recounting the nearly 3 million votes cast in the election with the hope of announcing a winner sometime in mid-December.
But although both campaigns have said every county is equally import, they admit that the potential for error is greatest in the largest. And as election officials scramble to recount the combined total of 1,048,372 votes in those top three counties, Coleman and Franken attorneys are keeping a hawk eye's watch over the proceedings.
"All the counties are important, but we'll probably have more lawyers in the larger counties like Hennepin, Ramsey, and St. Louis, given the volume of ballots," Coleman Communications Director Mark Drake said.
"The general rule is the larger the population center, the more attorneys," he said.
Drake said that the campaign has assigned more than one attorney to observe the proceedings at each recount location in the three largest counties. He added that in some instances only one lawyer is assigned to observe the recount in two or three smaller counties.
While Drake acknowledged a greater legal presence in the largest counties, he said he did not expect the official vote tallies in Hennepin, Ramsey and St. Louis to differ greatly from those recorded on Election night.
"If you look at those counties, Franken won them with pretty significant numbers," Drake said. "I don't think there is going to be that much change. The number going into the recount was 215, so we expect it to be somewhere in that ballpark. Our hope is just that things will go smoothly in those counties and that we'll have a courteous and clean recount."
Franken aides also said that a sizeable number of his campaign's attorneys — most of whom are working for the campaign as volunteers — have been dispatched to the largest counties, though they declined to give an exact number. The campaign has a total of 2,100 volunteers assisting them in the recount effort.
"Every vote in every county matters to us and obviously in the counties where there are more tables, we'll have more people, but we're not devoting disproportionate attention to any one geographical location," Franken's Communications Director Andy Barr said.
In recent days, Ramsey County has become a primary focus for the Franken campaign, who filed a lawsuit to gain access to data on rejected absentee ballots in that county.
On Wednesday, Ramsey County District Court Judge Dale B. Lindman granted their request — ordering the county to release data on the rejected absentee ballots.
"With each passing hour, the Franken campaign is irreparably harmed in its efforts to ensure that each valid vote is properly counted and will prepare for the procedures that will decide the election," Lindman wrote.
Though pleased with the ruling, the Franken campaign's lead attorney, Marc Elias, said he received early reports of "frivolous charges" put forth by the Coleman campaign at certain recount locations — though he did not say if those reports came from locations within the largest counties.
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, though optimistic about the massive effort under way, also has expressed caution over the ballot recount in the larger jurisdictions.
"There are much bigger processes in the larger counties," he said, adding that one of the biggest struggles in the those locations will be keeping election officials "awake."