Lisa Murkowski ahead in Alaska, but long count of write-ins looms

Write-in votes total more than 80,000. It may take until Nov. 29 for the Alaska Senate election to be certified, but for now, incumbent Lisa Murkowski appears to be the winner.

Michael Dinneen/AP
At center, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska ,speaks with media outlets in Anchorage, Alaska following early election returns showing write in candidates with a five-percent lead in the vote Tuesday Nov. 2.

Technically, the clear winner of Alaska’s hotly contested three-way Senate race was “Write-in,” which claimed 41 percent of the vote total. But Lisa Murkowski, the Republican incumbent, is the one who presumably collected the lion’s share of write-in votes.

Alaska law does not make it easy for write-in candidates – no stickers or stamps may be brought into the voting booths – but Senator Murkowski’s campaign used creative tactics to instruct supporters in how to properly cast a write-in vote. Among them: Rubber wristbands and temporary tattoos were passed out to voters, the campaign held a jingle contest, and it printed up T-shirts and stickers imprinted with drawings of cows and skis to remind voters to spell out “Mur-kow-ski.”

Now, the process looms to certify the election.

Counts of the write-in ballots will begin next Wednesday, a week earlier than previously planned, says Gail Fenumiai, director of Alaska’s Division of Elections.

The division still has plenty of other ballots to count. More than 26,000 absentee ballots had been received in the mail by Wednesday, and more were expected to flow in, Ms. Fenumiai says. Another 6,000 in-person absentee ballots were cast and need to be counted, she says, along with untold thousands of “questioned” ballots – a category that includes ballots cast by people voting outside their home precincts.

Sprawling geography, isolation of remote villages, and the popularity of absentee voting usually make for extended vote counts in Alaska.

But it is the examination of the ballots where the write-in option has been used, totaling 83,104 votes as of Wednesday afternoon, that will be particularly time consuming, Fenumiai says.

“It’s going to be a long, drawn-out process. It’s not going to be finished in five days,” she says.

Representatives of the candidates will have the right to look over ballot counters’ shoulders and challenge the write-ins. The state’s lieutenant governor, who oversees the Division of Elections, has determined that simple misspellings will not disqualify votes, but bigger mistakes might be subject to some intense debate, Fenumiai says. “We’re going to look at each of them on a case-by-case basis,” she says.

The election is expected to be certified by Nov. 29.

Potential complications could arise from an effort that some supporters of Joe Miller, the tea party-endorsed candidate, dubbed “Operation Alaska Chaos” – a flood of about 200 last-minute write-in candidates. The effort was promoted by Anchorage conservative talk-radio host Dan Fagan, who along with others was unhappy with a Division of Elections decision to hand out lists of write-in candidates. Critics took the issue to court, but ultimately, the Alaska Supreme Court and US Justice Department upheld the policy.

Mr. Fagan called for like-minded listeners to do what they could to get Murkowski write-in votes disqualified. Among the late-filing write-in candidates are a Lisa M. Lackey and a Lee Hamerski.

More legal challenges are likely to come.

For now, though, Murkowski is basking in what appears to be a victory. If the results are certified as expected, she will have accomplished what no US Senate candidate has done since 1954 – a successful write-in candidacy.

In the race, Murkowski shook off what seemed like universal rejection from national Republicans, who were angry at her decision to run against Mr. Miller. She won overwhelming support from Alaska Natives who live in rural villages, and she benefited from a widespread desire to maintain Alaska’s congressional clout through seniority.

Plus, there was general revulsion for what most voters of various political stripes concluded was the extreme right-wing agenda promoted by Miller, who beat Murkowski in the GOP primary by portraying her as too moderate.

“I think this election here in the state was really about Alaska. It was not about advancing the tea party agenda. Because if it was, they lost that,” Murkowski said at her midtown Anchorage campaign headquarters Wednesday, after chatting on the phone with a happy colleague, Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts.

Miller, who took 34 percent of the vote, has not conceded. He issued a statement Wednesday expressing confidence that he will prevail. "The campaign remains optimistic that Joe Miller will be the next U.S. Senator from the state of Alaska," the statement said.

He also issued a plea to his supporters for money to wage a legal fight. ”Time is urgent! In order for the true conservative to win this race, we need your continued support today,” he said in his fundraising appeal. “In short, this campaign is not over! ‘Write-in’ is not a winner.”

Murkowski, too, has assembled a legal team to defend the write-in votes, along with a legal-defense fund to pay for the fight. The team includes Ben Ginsberg, a top Republican Party attorney.

“What we want to do is make sure that every Alaskan’s vote is counted, no one is disenfranchised,” Murkowski said at a news conference held late Wednesday.

One candidate with no plans to wage a legal fight is Democrat Scott McAdams. The former Sitka mayor finished in third place with about 24 percent of the vote.

Mr. McAdams made a concession call to Murkowski and, at his final campaign news conference, said that the results were fairly obvious. “I believe the numbers are pretty clear. It’s probably Murkowski,” he said.

One apparent loser in the Alaska Senate race is former Gov. Sarah Palin, the conservative superstar whose endorsement of Miller catapulted him to the national stage and drew financial backing from the Tea Party Express and other conservative groups.

Murkowski, at her news conference, laughed when asked about Ms. Palin’s influence on the race but declined to comment.

McAdams says her sway on Alaska voters has become minimal. “I think we Alaskans know that she’s played a diminished role in Alaska politics,” he said at his news conference. “Certainly she has a following that makes up about 1 out of every 5 voters here.”

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