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Franken-Coleman Race May End Tuesday

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

The Senate race in Minnesota has been unresolved for five months now. In case you've lost track, Norm Coleman is the former Republican incumbent, Al Franken is the Democratic challenger and he currently holds a 225 vote lead. A three-judge panel has agreed to review nearly 400 absentee ballots that were initially rejected. And the judges are expected to make a decision on those ballots today. No matter what they determine, we may still not have a conclusion today.

NPR's Juan Williams is here, and like the rest of us, he's trying to sort this all out.

Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Ok. Well, help me do the math. If the judges are evaluating about 400 votes, Coleman would have to win about 80 percent of those in order to surpass Franken's 225 vote lead. How likely is that to happen?

WILLIAMS: Highly unlikely. Absentee ballots from across the state, you know, challenged - have been challenged for different reasons, Ari, and there's no clear pattern of ballots coming from one area or one stronghold, either Republican or Democratic Farm Labor, as they're called in Minnesota. So in an election on November 4th, each side here won 42 percent of the vote, 15 percent went to independent candidate.

Norm Coleman, the incumbent, the one term senator, wanted 1,300 rejected absentee ballots to be counted by county election officials. That would've given him a slightly better chance to overcome Franken's lead, about 225 votes out of the 2.9 million that were cast.

After the election, though, Coleman led by 700 votes. After the recount, which was automatic because of the tight race, Franken was up by 225. And so for the moment it doesn't seem that you have enough votes to give Coleman a real chance to turn this around.

SHAPIRO: Ok. So if reading the tea leaves, it seems difficult for Coleman to surpass Franken's lead here, what happens if the verdict comes down, today, in Franken's favor?

WILLIAMS: Well, Ben Ginsberg, who is Coleman's lawyer, is arguing that absentee ballots being thrown out amount to disenfranchising Minnesota voters. And he wants to take the issue, potentially, to the state supreme court.

Meanwhile, Senator John Cornyn, who is the chairman of the Republican Senatorial Committee here in Washington, wants to challenge the election, possibly, in the U.S. Supreme Court. You know, Senator Coleman has said that he wants a new election possibly, but there's no sign that anyone in Minnesota wants to pay for that.

And by the way, Ari, let me just mention here that, you know, Coleman's lawyer Ben Ginsberg is the same lawyer who played a key role for George W. Bush in the Florida 2000 recount. So at the moment it just looks like it's a matter of whether or not the Republicans are willing to prolong this as a result of making appeals to - further appeals - to the courts.

SHAPIRO: Well, how about the Democrats and their lawyers? What are they saying?

WILLIAMS: Well, Democrats in Minnesota and in Washington are just hoping for a clear victory today, of course, based largely on last week's ruling that only 400 ballots can be recounted. The next step would be certification of Al Franken's victory by Governor Tim Pawlenty, a Republican.

Now, the question is will Pawlenty abide by today's ruling or will he respond to pressure coming from Republicans in Washington who say let the process play out, let's go to further court hearings. Pawlenty has his own political future at stake here; he could run for governor a third time; he may have ambitions to run for president and it would damage the party in some minds.

But once the legal process is exhausted in Minnesota, the Democrats expect to have their 57 senators. So they're just laying low for the moment. And remember, they have also Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders here in Washington voting with them in the Senate. And that will give them a filibuster-proof majority, potentially on the edge of it. It would need 60 but closer.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Ari.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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United States & World Morning Edition
Juan Williams
Juan Williams, one of America's leading journalists, is a news analyst, appearing regularly on NPR's Morning Edition. Knowledgeable and charismatic, Williams brings insight and depth — hallmarks of NPR programs — to a wide spectrum of issues and ideas.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.