Coleman Campaign Questions 32 Ballots in Close Race With Franken

With only 206 votes out of 2.9 million total ballots separating Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota from his Democratic opponent Al Franken, every vote counts -- including the elusive 32 absentee ballots first reported to be found in a state official's car three days after the election.

The Coleman campaign claims that Minneapolis elections director Cynthia Reichert said the ballots had been "found" in her car and would be counted. Reichert denies that account, saying no ballots ever were placed in her vehicle.

Those 32 ballots have drawn close scrutiny, and for good reason: Coleman and Franken are locked in the closest Senate race in Minnesota's history -- with the outcome of the recount potentially affecting the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

According to Fritz Knaak, senior counsel for the Coleman campaign, around 8 p.m. Nov. 7, Coleman's campaign received a phone call from Reichert informing the campaign that 32 absentee ballots had been found in her car. Knaak told that Reichert said those ballots would be counted the next day.

"She initiated the call. She said, 'There were some ballots in the back of my car,'" Knaak said.

Knaak added that he did not speak with Reichert directly, saying the elections director talked with a Coleman campaign staff member. "I think someone on our legal staff," Knaak said, though he declined to provide a name.

The following morning, Knaak appeared in a Ramsey County courtroom to request a temporary restraining order to stop the counting of the 32 ballots.

Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin -- now a member of the Minnesota State Canvassing Board in charge of ruling over disputed ballots in the Senate race recount -- rejected Knaak's request.

Coleman's attorneys, however, accepted a statement from the city attorney assuring them that the ballots had been safely stored.

Knaak told that he had hoped Reichert, who was present in court, would take the stand.

"My own personal assessment, as a prosecutor of 30 years, was that they didn't put her on the stand because they believed she had done some kind of wrongdoing," he said.

But Reichert has called the Coleman campaign's ballot-car story a complete fiction.

Though Reichert declined an interview, Matt Laible, a spokesman with the City of Minneapolis Communications Department, sent a statement to on her behalf.

"There has been reporting that 32 absentee ballots were 'found' by the city of Minneapolis elections director on Friday evening. That is not the case," the statement reads. "The absentee ballots were never misplaced and have been in appropriate custody throughout the process."

Laible said Reichert contacted Coleman's campaign twice during the week of the election regarding the 32 ballots in dispute. He said that on Nov. 7, Reichert told the campaign that those ballots -- which were secured at City Hall -- would be moved to the elections warehouse and counted the next day.

Liable said the Coleman camp even sent in a guard named Tony to keep eye over them on Thursday night.

"On Friday, Ms. Reichert also called the Coleman campaign to let them know that those 32 ballots would be moved to the elections warehouse and counted on Saturday. We don't have the name of the person she spoke to that day, but wanted them to be aware since the campaign had shown an interest in guarding the ballots at the warehouse," Liable said.

He said no mention was ever made of them being "found" in her car, but rather, the ballots, which remained sealed until they were counted, were part of the normal delivery of absentee ballots late on Election Day.

"She did not say anything about ballots in her car, as no ballots were ever in her car. We are not sure what the Coleman staffer may have heard that led him to believe that was the case," Liable said.

Based on Reichert's assertions, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie both have said that the car ballots story is "debunked."

Knaak, however, is not convinced and said he remains "skeptical" of Reichert's account -- though he said he has no plans to further pursue the matter.

"We're not looking to pick fights. All I care about is that those 32 ballots didn't appear out of the ether for Al Franken. That's all I care about," he said.