Write-in ballot count begins Wednesday in Alaska's Senate race
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 12:41 AM
JUNEAU, ALASKA -- Rows of gray plastic tables fill a sprawling room that overlooks the snow-covered peaks of this port town, where America will begin to learn the answers Wednesday to the final pressing questions of the elections of 2010: Do the people of Alaska know how to color, and do they know how to spell?
If the count of write-in ballots shows that they do, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski will have pulled off one of the great upsets in political history with her last-minute write-in campaign to hold on to her seat. Launched just weeks before Election Day, her effort largely amounted to telling people to do the two things necessary for their votes to count: Fill in the bubble, and spell her name.
"It was on the radio constantly," said Carrie Graham, a tanning salon owner who slipped right into one of the constant ad refrains: " '. . . And don't forget to fill the bubble!'"
Graham said she was absolutely certain that she dutifully filled the bubble and spelled "Murkowski" correctly.
Another 91,000 voters wrote in their preferred candidate in the election, giving "write-in" - and possibly Murkowski - an initial lead of more than 11,000 votes over Republican and tea party favorite Joe Miller. In addition, election officials were tallying more than 30,000 absentee votes late Tuesday night.
But no one actually knows what all those people wrote in, leaving this race a cliffhanger more than a week after Election Day. Murkowski hopes there will be enough perfectly colored dots and properly spelled names to give her the unambiguous victory she has already claimed.
Miller, meanwhile, has made clear that he will contest every "Murklewski" in the bunch. Already, he has compiled a litany of wrongs in preparation for a legal fight, and he filed suit Tuesday in federal court, trying to block election officials from using their discretion in determining a voter's intent.
Officials moved up the counting of write-in ballots, which was initially scheduled for Nov. 18, leaving Miller to scramble to put together a team of lawyers and watchers to keep an eye on things. A court decision allowed voters to see a list of write-in candidates as they entered the polls, something Miller and his supporters argued was unfair and unprecedented.
And then there's the matter of getting people to the site of the count in Juneau, a touristy town in Alaska's southern panhandle. Although it serves as the state capital, it is about 900 miles away from the population center of Anchorage and accessed primarily by airplane and cruise ship.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) both urged supporters to donate money to Miller's legal fund, in part to send enough lawyers and monitors to Juneau. In Anchorage, tea party supporters pooled their frequent-flier miles in hopes of sending about a dozen volunteers to be trained as official observers.
Miller has also argued that the law requires Murkowski's name to be spelled properly, though election officials ruled that misspellings are okay as long as the voter's "intent" is clear - a subjective standard that could lead to a litany of disputes.