Minnesota edges closer to deciding Senate winner

ST PAUL, Minn Tue Dec 30, 2008 6:47pm GMT

Election judges Willy Lee (L) and Joanne Caspersen recount marked ballots cast for the 2008 Minnesota senate race between former Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken (DFL-MN) and incumbent Norm Coleman (R-MN) at an elections warehouse in Minneapolis November 19, 2008. REUTERS/Eric Miller

Election judges Willy Lee (L) and Joanne Caspersen recount marked ballots cast for the 2008 Minnesota senate race between former Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken (DFL-MN) and incumbent Norm Coleman (R-MN) at an elections warehouse in Minneapolis November 19, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Miller

ST PAUL, Minn (Reuters) - The end drew closer on Tuesday in Minnesota's drawn-out U.S. Senate race, with Democrat Al Franken holding a slim 50-vote lead over incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, officials said.

Franken was leading Coleman 1,211,951 to 1,211,901 -- with at least 1,346 absentee ballots still to be counted by early next week.

"We're darn close," said Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat and member of the five-member board trying to determine the winner of the November 4 contest.

The Democrats will be in control of the U.S. Senate with at least 57 seats in the 100-seat chamber when Congress reconvenes on January 6. In addition to Minnesota's undecided seat, no appointment has been made to fill the Illinois seat of President-elect Barack Obama because of a political corruption scandal involving the state's Democratic governor, Rod Blagojevich.

Local media said the majority of the remaining uncounted absentee ballots come from areas likely to favor Franken. But Coleman's camp has demanded that another 654 absentee ballots be counted.

The state Supreme Court has ruled the absentee ballots had been improperly excluded and county election officials were ordered to retrieve and then count them.

Coleman, who has served one term, and former comedian Franken garnered 2.4 million of 2.9 million votes cast, with the remaining won by an independent candidate.

Coleman had a 215-vote lead before the recount began. It was mandated by state law because of the razor-thin margin.

Ritchie and fellow members of the state Canvassing Board made changes to eight ballots at its Tuesday meeting -- two credited to Coleman and six to Franken.

The board is to meet on January 5 to finish its work and will likely declare a winner by January 6, though it could be challenged in court by the loser.

(Reporting by Todd Melby, writing by Andrew Stern; Editing by Peter Bohan and Doina Chiacu)