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Minnesota recount nears end

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Supreme Court today rejected Republican Norm Coleman's request to count an additional 654 rejected absentee ballots in his weeks-old Senate showdown with Democrat Al Franken.

The ruling clears the way for the state Canvassing Board to certify results showing Franken the winner after the Supreme Court said the issue is best settled in a post-count lawsuit.

Coleman's attorneys have said they're likely to sue if he loses the recount, meaning it could be weeks more before the outcome is final.

"Today's ruling, which effectively disregards the votes of hundreds of Minnesotans, ensures that an election contest is now inevitable," Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak said in a written statement. "The Coleman campaign has consistently and continually fought to have every validly cast vote counted, and for the integrity of Minnesota's election system, we will not stop now."

Coleman has argued the ballots were improperly rejected. Franken's campaign said Coleman was focusing only on ballots that would allow him to prevail.

Franken, the former "Saturday Night Live" personality who has been active in Democratic politics for years, leads Coleman by 225 votes. That's after the state counted more than 2.9 million ballots, including 900 absentees not counted on Nov. 4 because of poll worker errors.

"Minnesotans have waited a long time for a winner to be declared in this race, and today, with the last attempt to halt the counting process now having failed, Al Franken will be declared the winner," said Franken attorney Marc Elias.

The state Supreme Court cited an earlier order requiring candidates and local election officials to agree on which unopened absentee ballots should be included in the recount. Justice Alan Page said the ballots Coleman identified didn't have that consensus.

The ruling was another hard blow to Coleman, who entered the weekslong recount up by 215 votes.

The Canvassing Board — made up of four judges and the secretary of state — was to meet later today to go over the final results and sign off on them. That would trigger a seven-day waiting period before an election certificate is signed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

If any lawsuits are filed during that waiting period, certification is withheld until court matters are resolved.

Lawyers for both campaigns have laid the groundwork for lawsuits through public comments and legal maneuvering. In recent weeks, as Franken clung to a small lead, Coleman's lawyers said they could sue over possible mishandling of ballots on election night and during the recount.

A court case would open doors closed to the campaigns during the administrative recount. They would be able to access voter rolls, inspect machines and get testimony from election workers.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who until recently was the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Sunday the race was settled and that Franken had won the election.

"While there are still possible legal issues that will run their course, there is no longer any doubt who will be the next Senator from Minnesota," Schumer said. "With the Senate set to begin meeting on Tuesday to address the important issues facing the nation, it is crucial that Minnesota's seat not remain empty, and I hope this process will resolve itself as soon as possible."

Sen. John Cornyn, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called Schumer's comments premature and troubling, since Schumer is the new chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over contested elections.

"Senator Schumer will likely play a key role in determining who ultimately assumes this Senate seat," Cornyn said. "Prejudging the outcome while litigation is still pending calls into question his ability to impartially preside over this matter when it comes before the committee, as it most certainly will."

Coleman's term as senator expired Saturday.

Senate Republican leaders have said the chamber shouldn't seat Franken until all legal matters are settled, which could take months.

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Associated Press writer Amy Forliti contributed to this report.