The scene inside a Ramsey County government center -- the single largest recount location in Minnesota -- was remarkably calm and orderly Wednesday as election officials began the tedious process of sorting thousands of ballots in the hotly contested Senate race between Sen. Norm Coleman and Al Franken.
The seriousness and sense of purpose of all parties were clear. But in an ever-contentious race in which only 215 out of 2.9 million votes separated the candidates, the room was surprisingly more like a library than a boisterous sporting event, no cheering at points won.
Eight tables filled the recount room, with six people seated at each one: four election officials acting as "counters" and two "observers" from each campaign -- ready to pounce at any inaccuracy or questionable ballot put forth on the table.
Election attorneys, campaign observers and the news media hovered over the tables as officials sorted the paper ballots into four piles: one for Franken, one for Coleman, one for other candidates and one for disputed ballots in which the voter's intent could not clearly be determined.
Four "roaming observers" from each campaign were permitted to walk from table to table to observe the proceedings as a steady stream of ballot boxes sealed with blue plastic fasteners were wheeled into the room.
Before sorting began, county elections manager Joe Mansky announced the ground rules. He said the center's goal was to recount 30,000 ballots each day -- or one every five seconds for each counter (Ramsey County has approximately 300,000 ballots to check).
No one but county election employees or election judges may touch the ballots, Mansky said, and no talking was permitted in the room.
"What we're going to be looking for today is any ballots where the voter intent is not absolutely clear," he said. "There are very, very few ballots on which we are not absolutely clear."
At about noon, 10 to 15 ballots were in dispute, according to observers from both campaigns.
"We're finding very few discrepancies," said Rob Smith, a recount observer with the Coleman campaign.
One table, however, reported an oddity: 125 blank ballots from the same precinct -- 4th ward, precinct 7 -- in St. Paul.
"Usually you find about three to four per precinct as what we call 'protest ballots,' but 125 from the same precinct is something I've never seen before," Smith said.