It wasn't a total victory for Coleman, who had wanted the judges to look at about 11,000 such ballots. He also has to prove the absentees were unfairly rejected, and it's likely that Franken would gain votes from the pile too.
But his attorneys had said the absentees were the centerpiece of his court challenge, and they cheered the ruling.
"This is a victory for thousands of Minnesotans whose rejected absentee ballots will now be properly reviewed in this election," Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg said in a prepared statement.
While the judges limited Coleman's field of potential new votes, they allowed many more ballots than Franken had wanted. His attorneys had argued Coleman should be limited to about 650 — the specific figure given in his initial Jan. 6 lawsuit.
The judges, however, ruled that the Jan. 6 filing laid out additional categories of ballots that should be examined.
The judges said they would look at two categories of rejected absentees: those where it appeared the voter had met the legal requirements, and those where voters might have run afoul of the law through no fault of their own.
The judges agreed to consider 4,797 rejected absentee ballots because that was the number Coleman said in a Jan. 23 filing met one of those two conditions.
In a separate order later Tuesday, the judges made clear that Coleman would have to prove at trial that each questioned ballot was wrongly rejected in order for it to be counted.
Coleman's attorneys said they're ready to offer individual evidence that all or most of those ballots were wrongly rejected — strengthening the possibility that the trial could last several months.
Ginsberg said the 4,797 ballots was always "the universe of ballots we thought should be examined because they are valid." He said they never expected the rest to be brought into the count, but "we were willing to bring them here so everyone could see that."
Franken has his own pile of 771 rejected absentees he wants considered, but his lawyers aren't expected to make his argument on those until after Coleman rests his case.
Meanwhile, Franken attorney Marc Elias said, "We're prepared to go forward with the universe they've defined." Elias said he believed the judges would find that most of the 4,797 had been properly rejected.
It's not clear how the absentees will be examined. Ginsberg said Coleman's lawyers are prepared to offer evidence on each one if necessary.
Ginsberg said the rejected absentees now subject to review weren't cherry-picked from areas that favored Coleman. Elias said he was skeptical of that claim: "Let's just put it this way — it was a list compiled by the Coleman campaign," he said.
Meanwhile, in testimony at the trial Tuesday, Coleman's attorneys sought to show that different Minnesota counties applied different standards to rejecting absentees — the heart of their case in seeking a uniform standard on absentees.
Kevin Corbid, who supervises elections in Washington County, said his county decided on absentees with the best information available at the time.
But Coleman's attorney, Joe Friedberg, highlighted an area where Corbid's decisions appeared to differ slightly from his counterpart in a neighboring county.
Corbid testified he didn't make a special effort to accept previously rejected absentee ballots if he had reason to believe they were rejected because of mistakes by election judges. A day earlier, Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky testified he made a particular effort to remedy such mistakes.