Verbal Energy

No 'spelling bee' election in Alaska

Electoral authorities didn't require Alaska voters to be perfect spellers; from a linguist's perspective, that's OK.

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The 2010 elections, the gift that keeps on giving, have imparted new meaning to the phrase "all over but the shouting."

At this writing, Lisa Murkowski looks likely to be headed back to Washington as Alaska's senior senator and into the history books as the first candidate since Strom Thurmond in 1954 to win election to the Senate as a write-in. Her victory, if confirmed, as is now expected, will turn in part on a decision to honor ballots from voters who merely approximated the correct spelling of her name.

How should we feel about that? Are standards slipping irretrievably in the republic?

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Her Democratic opponent has conceded defeat. But her Republican opponent, Joe Miller, whose own name was easier to spell and was, moreover, actually on the ballot, has had other ideas.

His campaign has challenged all ballots that fall short orthographically. State authorities, on the other hand, have been counting as valid all those who came close to spelling "Murkowski" right.

Alaskan law requires electoral officials to take into account "voter intent" when counting write-in votes. This standard is common across the country, it turns out. The Los Angeles Times quoted Richard Winger, editor of the election law journal Ballot Access News: "I am not aware of any state that says write-ins can't be counted unless the spelling is perfect."

As a copy editor, I'm with Mr. Miller. What kind of democracy can't spell its leaders' names right?

As a student of language, though, I understand that spoken language came first, and that the written form of any word is an approximation of the spoken form; it's not the other way around. After all, there's a reason we call it "language" – from the Latin word for "tongue" – and not "scribblage," or something like that.

The case for a more generous interpretation of what counts as a valid vote for a write-in candidate starts with this primacy of spoken language.

Much of what we recognize as democracy began with spoken language, conversations, and debates in halls of assembly and the public square. Democracy was then furthered by written communication, especially after the development of the printing press.

More recently, speech has gained a boost from new forms of communication – from FDR's fireside chats to YouTube – that have let us hear, and hear repeatedly, what we otherwise might only have read.

Of course we need both modes: Writing – "print" – allows for rereading, for reflection and the consideration of nuance. Speech, especially live, in-person speech, provides immediacy and the expression of feelings.

In the interest of full disclosure, here's my own experience of achieving victory as a write-in candidate – in an election where all candidates were write-ins. We were electing a new board of the Association of the Foreign Press in Germany when I was posted in Bonn. We sat around tables in a large room not unlike a high school cafeteria. It was a very international group, many of them with names far more complex than "Murkowski." We voted by writing names on little slips of paper.

In the end it came down to a contest between a polysyllabic Russian – the Pravda correspondent – and me. I won, and I always suspected that it was because my name was so much easier to spell.

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