Minnesota court: New Senate ballots must be sent out

Published: Friday, November 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 31, 2002 at 10:19 p.m.
ST. PAUL, Minn. - Minnesota's Supreme Court on Thursday ordered local election officials 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 short of what the Democrats wanted: the mailing of new ballots to all absentee voters, whether they ask for a new ballot or not.
The decision came as former Vice President Walter Mondale kicked off a lightning five-day campaign 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.
Under a plan agreed on by state officials earlier this week, absentee votes that had been cast for Wellstone before his death would not be counted. And voters who wanted to cast new ballots would have to request one in person.
But the Democrats complained that that would be too inconvenient for many voters, and would disenfranchise those who marked their ballots for Wellstone.
The high court issued its ruling just hours after hearing arguments, and the seven justices did not detail their reasoning. But the order requires election officials to fulfill requests for new ballots and count the most recent one they receive.
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.
The Republicans had opposed a blanket re-mailing, but their attorney told the high court that the party had no objection to sending new ballots to anyone who requested them, which was the Democrats' fallback position.
Meanwhile, Mondale said he planned to travel the state and would engage Republican Norm 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 in a plane crash. A poll suggests Mondale has a slight lead over Coleman, a former St. Paul mayor.
During arguments before the high court, GOP lawyer Tony Trimble objected to sending new ballots to voters who do not request them. "Government should not presume people wish to change their vote," he said.
The Republicans also said that a huge re-mailing of all ballots could disenfranchise supporters of other candidates by leaving them too little time to file their new ballots.
Democratic lawyer Alan Weinblatt rejected the idea that too little time remained to get new absentee ballots out. "We are living in the 21st century, not the 19th," he told the court, noting that new ballots could be made available by Web site, fax and e-mail.
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 before the ruling, a number of county election officials - including those in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis and a quarter of the state's population - said they would mail new absentee ballots to those who asked for them.
Apart from the legal dispute, state and county officials warned that the results of Tuesday's election will be delayed for hours. Hatch 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.

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