As expected based on its initial rulings on absentee ballots, the Minnesota election contest panel reviewing the Senate race has awarded the election to Al Franken over Norm Coleman.  The additional ballots allowed by the panel actually increased Franken’s lead, and the panel ruled that Coleman did not prove any systemic failure in the election or recount process.  It called the evidence for Franken “overwhelming”:

Three judges soundly rejected Norm Coleman’s attempt to reverse Al Franken’s lead in the U.S. Senate election late Monday, sweeping away the Republican’s claims in a blunt ruling Coleman promised to appeal.

After a trial spanning nearly three months, the judicial panel dismissed Coleman’s central argument that the election and its aftermath were fraught with systemic errors that made the results invalid.

“The overwhelming weight of the evidence indicates that the Nov. 4, 2008, election was conducted fairly, impartially and accurately,” the panel said in its unanimous decision.

Coleman has already vowed to appeal this decision, which was widely anticipated.  He will base that appeal mainly on the inconsistent treatment of absentee ballots between the counties and at different stages of the recount and contest phases.  The election panel unanimously rejected those points, but they’re specifically constructed for a federal challenge rather than a state appeal.  Coleman has to go to the Minnesota Supreme Court next, but he has given every indication that he will continue in the federal system as long as there are ballots to be counted.

Should he do that?  Some people are suggesting that an extended challenge will not only prove futile, but will also damage Coleman’s long-term political prospects.  I’m not so sure about the latter.  Coleman already lost an election for governor, and Tim Pawlenty appears interested in running for a third term.  Coleman could challenge Amy Klobuchar for her Senate seat, but that won’t be until 2012.  Any supposed damage done to Coleman will have a long time to heal, if his appeal does prove futile.

After carefully observing this process for the last several months, I don’t think Franken stole the election; I think Coleman blew the recount phase by being too passive and too concerned about appearances rather than aggressively challenging Franken ballots the way Franken challenged his.  He brought a hackey-sack to a knife fight, and missed his opportunity.  I also believe that the state screwed up the recount by opening previously-rejected absentee ballots, which should have only happened in the challenge phase, and then opened the wrong ballots on top of all that.  Coleman has a case in federal court, but whether he can find a court at any level so offended by the foul-up that they’re willing to toss out an election that the state has certified will be the big question.

So when should Norm call it off?

Update: Eric Black says Franken will get his seat by June, even while appeals continue.