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Al Franken speaks to reporters. He said he wants to get to the Senate to work for the state.

Judges say Franken won Senate election; Coleman plans appeal

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Al Franken won the U.S. Senate race and should be sent to Washington, a three-judge panel unanimously ruled Monday evening, but Minnesota is at least a few weeks away from having two senators.

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Republican Norm Coleman plans to appeal the decision, which follows a seven-week trial on a lawsuit he brought when a statewide recount left him trailing Democrat Franken by 225 votes. After the judges' ruling, Franken leads by 312 votes.

Franken told reporters Monday night that he would head to Washington soon, as he has several times in recent months, preparing ready to take office as senator.

"It's time that Minnesota, like every other state, has two," he said, with his wife, Franni, at his side.

"It has been more than five months since Election Day, and more than three months since the winner of this election was supposed to be sworn in to go to work for the people of Minnesota," Franken said, adding that the state needs two senators because of the recession hitting the country.

"And all of us have watched as our neighbors in the Red River Valley have struggled and suffered in the wake of the flooding there," Franken said, hinting that a second senator could do a better job getting federal aid to the state.

The Democrat said the judges' ruling was clear and unanimous -- that he should be senator. But he also said he understands that Coleman will appeal.

Coleman pledged that appeal to the state Supreme Court, a process that could take weeks. And there is a good chance the loser at that level will appeal to the U.S. courts, meaning that it could be months before a new senator is sworn in.

The ruling said the election did not violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, as Coleman had claimed. It also indicated that the election was fair and that each county properly adopted ballot counting rules, even if the 87 counties did not follow the same exact procedure.

"Election officials exercised reasonable discretion within the confines of Minnesota election law and under a comprehensive, statewide training program in determining whether a voter met the statutory requirement of absentee voting," the judges wrote in a 68-page ruling.

The major dispute in the trial, which included seven weeks of testimony, was whether thousands of absentee ballots that had been rejected in the Nov. 4 election should have been counted. In the end, the judges decided that fewer than 400 previously uncounted ballots should be tallied.

Also, the judges said: "Equal protection does not guarantee a perfect election."

Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg confirmed the pending appeal, which must come within 10 days.

"More than 4,400 Minnesotans remain wrongly disenfranchised by this court's order," Ginsberg said in a statement issued shortly after the judges released their ruling. "The court's ruling tonight is consistent with how they've ruled throughout this case but inconsistent with the Minnesota tradition of enfranchising voters."

Every decision by the judges in the case was unanimous.

Judges who have spent most of this year hearing the case are Kurt Marben of Pennington County, Denise Reilly of Hennepin County and Elizabeth Hayden of Stearns County.

The three ordered that Coleman pay a limited amount of Franken's legal fees, which are in the millions of dollars.

Coleman tried to get judges to count most possible ballots in hopes of overcoming the 225-vote deficit. Most of the votes the judges allowed to be counted went to Franken.

The case drew interest from well outside of Minnesota. Republicans want to delay the race's outcome as long as possible so they can keep Democrats a vote down in the Senate. Coleman has received much financial support from Republicans across the country.

On Nov. 18, the state Canvassing Board showed Coleman led Franken 1,211,565 to 1,211,359. However, after the statewide recount of each of the 2.9 million ballots, the board ruled on Jan. 5 -- two days after Coleman's term expired--that Franken won by 225 votes.

Coleman challenged the recount in court, leading to the trial, which began Jan. 26.

During the trial, a parade of would-be voters took to the witness stand, each claiming he thought his vote should count. The voters' absentee ballots had been rejected for reasons such as elections officials could not find their registration or that signatures in two places on the absentee applications did not match.

Coleman entered the trial saying that up to 12,000 absentee ballots may have been improperly rejected and should be considered to be counted. In the end, the court ordered fewer than 400 to be counted.

The Coleman campaign put witnesses on the stand for 26 days, the Franken side for eight days. The judges heard from 142 witnesses, including 69 voters. The rest were state and local elections officials. The two sides gave the judges 1,717 exhibits.

In the meantime, the state Supreme Court has ruled that no election certificate could be forthcoming until the state court process ends, including an appeal.

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