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The recount in the Minnesota Senate race hasn't even begun yet, but already the GOP is working to delegitimize it in advance, by smearing the man who will run it as a partisan Democrat.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has been distributing to reporters a three-page "backgrounder" that attacks Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat, for having spoken at the Democratic convention this summer, and for having "led a voter registration coalition that included ACORN," among other alleged sins.

In the first vote count, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman currently holds an edge of around 200 votes over Democratic challenger Al Franken, though that number may continue to dwindle as more votes are counted. Either way, the margin is easily close enough to require a recount under state law, which will begin next week under Ritchie's supervision.

Despite the backgrounder's sometimes hysterical compilation of anti-Ritchie greatest hits -- it claims that "the Communist Party USA Wrote Encouragingly Of His Candidacy," citing an unsourced line from a report in the Minneapolis Star Tribue -- there's no evidence that Ritchie has ever used his role as the state's top elections administrator to advantage Democrats.

But that likely misses the point of the GOP gambit, which appears to be to cast public doubt on the integrity of the recount process, thereby bolstering Coleman's claim that's he's the rightful winner and that a recount is unnecessary -- just the strategy pursued by George Bush's campaign in Florida in 2000.

Indeed, Coleman's shrinking lead in the first count has already prompted him to try to question the ongoing vote counting. A lawyer for the campaign yesterday told The Politico: "We're not going to sit idly by, while mysterious, statistically dubious changes in vote totals take place after official government offices close."

It looks like the battle over voter registration didn't end with the election.

Of course, Republican-driven fears of rampant voter fraud perpetrated by ACORN proved unfounded. (So, we should note, did Democratic fears of an election stolen through massive purges of valid voters -- though that was thanks partly to the vigilance of voting-rights groups who brought lawsuits in some states in the weeks before the election.)

But, reports the Los Angeles Times, advocates of election reform still think there's a whole lot of room for improvement. They're talking up the idea of "universal registration," which would have the government take the initiative on voter registration, as is done in other major democracies.

The specific proposals for a universal system differ, but they all aim to address the fact that nearly 1 in 4 American adults is not on the rolls. Most would do things like ensuring that when voters move, states would update their rolls, and some would automatically add teens to the rolls when they turn 18, and to add people .

Perhaps most far-reaching is a proposal to have Congress create a national voter registration database modeled on the Social Security database. But other plans would put registration in the hands of the states.

One benefit of universal registration is that it would take groups like ACORN -- which was criticized, mainly by Republicans, for submitting large numbers of bogus registration forms, wasting time and resources for election officials -- out of the voter registration equation.

And that would prevent the GOP from using ACORN as a boogeyman for fears of systematic voter fraud -- as the party tried to do this year -- thereby making it harder to justify efforts at voter suppression.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a leading voting-rights group, Hillary Clinton has said she plans to introduce legislation for a federal version of the system, and officials in a handful of states have also expressed interest in passing similar state laws.

It's too soon to know whether the bitter fights over ACORN and voter suppression that we saw this year are a thing of the past. But it's encouraging that people are still paying attention to the problem.

Insurance giant AIG spent $343,000 on an executive retreat to an Arizona resort last week, despite a financial situation so dire that the Treasury Department agreed to give the firm another $150 billion in taxpayer money Monday. The company has already apologized for its October spree at the lavish St. Regis resort in California, which occurred shortly after the company received its first multi-billion dollar infusion from the government. It does at least appear that AIG has stuck to its promise to take the current economic conditions into account. This time, the company tried to keep the event secret. (New York Times/ABC) One of Barack Obama's first moves as president may be to close Guantanamo Bay and institute a special national security court to prosecute detainees. The Cuban base has come under fire at home and abroad from those who say the Pentagon is using the offshore location to circumvent US laws against harsh interrogation tactics and holding prisoners for lengthy periods without charge. (CNN)

Absentee ballots poured into Alaska over the weekend, likely pushing voter turnout past the 2004 rate and going some way toward quelling rumors that the state's elections had been manipulated. More than 90,000 ballots remain uncounted, more than enough to leave still contested Senate and House races, featuring controversial GOPers Ted Stevens and Don Young, up in the air. Absentee voters will likely amount to nearly 30 percent of the total. (Daily News Miner)

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This morning we told you that election officials in Georgia are throwing out ballots cast by new voters who couldn't prove their citizenship, on the orders of the Republican secretary of state, Karen Handel.

And now Handel's office says it can't say how many of those disqualified ballots were actually cast by eligible voters.

A spokesman for the office insisted to TPMmuckraker that most of the voters originally identified through the state's system for finding non-citizens had self-identified as being such. But voting-rights groups argue that that system -- which checks registrations against state drivers records -- is flawed, and could lead to be eligible voters being included through data entry errors and other administrative errors.

Handel's office couldn't yet say how many mistakes had been made, though the spokesman added that the information would soon become available as information from individual counties came in.

In other words, the office can't say how many eligible voters cast ballots that are now being thrown out.

The dispute began back in October, when voting-rights groups including the ACLU sued the state over an effort by Handel to purge from the rolls newly registered voters whose citizenship was called into question by the state's database.

A judge ultimately ruled that the state must allow the voters whose citizenship was in question -- around 5000 -- to cast provisional ballots, and must inform them of the challenge to their eligibility. The voters would then have to show documents proving their citizenship, either on Election Day or in subsequent days, in order for their ballot to be counted.

As we wrote earlier today, many voters did so, but in some counties, around a third did not, causing their some of their ballots to be disqualified starting today. But it now appears almost certain that some ballots cast by eligible voters who were mistakenly flagged, and who then failed to provide election officials with the necessary documents after the fact, are being wrongly thrown out.

We'll continue to keep you posted as more information becomes available...

One of the key questions in the lawsuit filed against Nasser Kazeminy, a close friend and supporter of Minnesota Republican senator Norm Coleman, relates to the nature of the work done by Coleman's wife Laurie for the Hays Companies.

And on that score, there seems to be a noteworthy amount of confusion among the principles.

Let's back up. The suit, filed late last month in Texas by the former CEO of Deep Marine Technologies, alleges in part that Kazeminy set up a scheme to pass money from DMT, which he owns, to Coleman, through the Hays Companies, a Minneapolis-based insurance broker. The suit claims that Laurie Coleman received $75,000 from Hays, without performing legitimate work for the company, and that these payments were an effort by Kazeminy to get money to Norm Coleman.

The senator -- who faces a recount in his reelection race against Democrat Al Franken -- has denied the allegations. And Hays Companies, in a statement issued after the suit was made public, called them "libelous and defamatory."

But are the two on different pages as to the nature of Laurie Coleman's relationship with Hays?

In that statement, Hays declared that Laurie Coleman "has been an Independent Contractor for Hays Companies since 2006," without elaborating as to the nature of her work for Hays.

But on his Senate disclosure forms for 2006 and 2007, Norm Coleman explicitly lists the type of income that his wife received from Hays as "salary" -- which by definition would render Laurie Coleman an employee, rather than an independent contractor.

Of course, Norm Coleman may simply have been imprecise in filling out the disclosure form and used "salary" as shorthand for compensation. But it's a discrepancy that would be worth resolving.

Calls by TPMmuckraker to Norm Coleman's campaign and Senate offices, and to a lawyer for the Hays Companies who has been handling questions on the lawsuit, were not immediately returned.

A significant number of the almost 5000 Georgia voters whose citizenship was challenged before the election will not have their ballots counted.

Last week, about 4,770 voters were told they would have to vote on paper ballots because their citizenship was in question. It was then up to them to return to their local election boards with proof of citizenship.

In several counties, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, about one third of those voters neither returned with the necessary documents, nor showed up to last-chance hearings late last week. As a result, in many counties at least, their ballots will be thrown out.

The issue is not merely academic for this year's election. Neither major candidate got 50 percent of the vote in Georgia's U.S. Senate race, forcing a run-off to be held December 2nd. Voters whose ballots were thrown out would presumably also be barred from voting in the runoff.

The state requires newly registered voters to verify their citizenship -- a requirement that has been questioned by the U.S. Department of Justice and is the subject of a lawsuit.

Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel -- who before the election was criticized by voting-rights groups for taking an overly restrictive approach to voting -- verifies citizenship by checking voter registration information against state records.

Handel has said that the only people who were checked were new voters or those who changed an essential piece of information on their registration form. But it's unclear on exactly what basis the citizenship challenges were made.

We'll keep you posted as things become clearer.

Since 2004, the U.S. military has carried out previously undisclosed attacks against Al Qaeda in Pakistan, Syria, and other countries with which we are not at war. The attacks were authorized by a secret order signed by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the spring of that year, which allowed the military to attack Al Qaeda anywhere in the world. (The New York Times)

Rumors continue to swirl about the low turnout in Alaska last Tuesday, where 8,311 fewer votes were cast than in 2004, despite tight races in the Senate and the House, and Sarah Palin's presence on the Republican presidential ticket. The votes haven't all been counted yet, and Stevens' race is still up in the air. But Ivan Moore, the state's most prominent pollster, tells the paper that "something smells fishy." Still he adds -- along with representaives from both parties -- that it's premature to suggest that the vote was manipulated. (Anchorage Daily News)

The U.S. killed nearly 40 Afghan civilians in an airstrike last week, a joint U.S.-Afghan inquiry confirmed. The U.S. had originally put the total number of deaths far lower. Civilian casualties have strained U.S. relations with the Afghan government. (Reuters)

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As we spend the day recounting yesterday, there were no incidents of voter fraud in the states where the GOP made a fuss over ACORN and other voter registration groups.

In fact, voting went remarkably smoothly, despite the surge in turnout -- a result, many voter experts say, of the use of early voting in key states.

Which raises key questions -- why isn't there early voting in all states? And after all of the debate over voter registration fraud, why not just institute universal voter registration?

"The single most important thing that Congress can do right now is create universal voter registration, which would mean that all eligible voters are automatically registered," said Rosemary E. Rodriguez, the chairwoman of the federal Election Assistance Commission, in an article on the subject in the New York Times this morning. The majority of states -- 32 -- have early-voting, with Congress discussing its expansion, the Times reports.

In fact, legislation for universal registration is already in the works in Sen. Hillary Clinton's office -- which would minimize long lines and the problems created by third-party groups like ACORN, which might sate the appetite of the GOP who has long accused ACORN of propagating voter registration fraud.

But, as the Times points out, even though making voting easier might sound like a non-partisan issue accepted by both sides of the aisle, it is anything but:

Lorraine C. Minnite, a political science professor and voting rights expert at Barnard College, said Republicans had generally resisted such efforts in part out of concern about ineligible voters like noncitizens being permitted to vote.

"But the bigger reason that Republicans have resisted expanding the franchise," Dr. Minnite said, "is that the new people who are likely to come into the electorate are more often of lower income and are people of color, who tend to vote Democratic."

Tom Jensen, a Democratic pollster based in Raleigh, N.C., said early voting gave Mr. Obama the edge for his narrow victory in North Carolina by offering his campaign more time to organize rides and get people to the polls. Mr. Jensen noted that Mr. Obama won early balloting by 178,000 votes but lost among Election Day voters by 165,000 votes.

"Obama had a great ground game," he said, "but if you only have 13 hours to get everyone out, it's much harder."

The first hearing on the government's reasons behind holding six enemy combatants in Guantanamo began yesterday, only to be closed to the public -- and the detainees themselves -- after a judge ruled that the evidence was classified. The case is the first to come to trial after the Supreme Court's June decision that gave detainees habeas corpus rights. In 2005, the judge overseeing the trial, Bush-appointee Richard Leon, said enemy combatants had no habeas corpus rights. (New York Times)

The U.S. will open a probe into two airstrikes in Afghanistan that may have left 60 civilians dead, amid growing pressure from local leaders who say the U.S. military's attacks frequently disregard the dangers posed to innocent people. (CNN)

Former NY Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) may have broken local laws by soliciting sex from a call girl the night before Valentine's Day, but the Justice Department says he paid for it with his own money (never mind his career) and they will not bring charges against him. (AP)

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BMW Direct, the notorious direct mail firm famous for striking fundraising deals with loser candidates -- predictably lost two of its high profile races this Tuesday.

We mentioned late last week that a BMW client, Deborah Honeycutt -- a Republican challenging Democratic incumbent Rep. David Scott in Georgia -- looked to be making a small challenge to Scott and had raised almost $4.7 million through BMW Direct, though the vast majority had gone in fees back to the company.

Well Honeycutt lost her race -- by the same margin she'd lost in 2006 -- 38 percentage points. According to FEC records, Honeycutt has spent $4.3 million this election cycle, $47 for every vote she received.

As for BMW's other high-profile loser candidate, the Republican challenger to Jack Murtha in Pennsylvania's 12th District, he lost too. Touted by Michelle Malkin as a "jaw-dropping political miracle" Russell brought in almost $2.5 million through BMW Direct -- but spent more than half of that in payments back to the direct mail firm. While he pulled tighter to Murtha at the end of the race, it was more due to the Congressman's gaffes, than any awe inspired fundraising.

One last thing about Honeycutt -- it looks like she's going to have more to deal with than just a lost election. Scott has filed a federal complaint against Honeycutt for allegedly funding sleazy fliers that called Scott the "worst black congressperson."

Special thanks to TPM Reader BK for the tip.

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