Write-in ballot count begins Wednesday in Alaska's Senate race

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Murkowski, meanwhile, has reportedly hired lawyer Ben Ginsberg, who represented George W. Bush in the 2000 recount fight and Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in his 2008 recount battle in Minnesota.

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.

This could also be important because 160 other write-in candidates jumped into the race, at least some of them at the urging of a conservative talk radio host who backed Miller. One of those candidates is a Lisa M. Lackey - which could complicate things if voters decided to simply write "Lisa," as Murkowski is known by many supporters, or "Lisa M."

On Tuesday night, after 22,000 absentee ballots had been counted, Miller had closed the gap with Murkowski by nearly 1,900 votes. Although it was a modest gain, it cheered about 50 supporters who gathered Tuesday night at the half-dismantled campaign office at the Nugget Mall for a pep talk by the candidate.

"It's been a good day," he told reporters afterward. "We've gained, and we're going to continue to gain in the absentee count. . . . People throughout the state are excited; they're still out there fighting to make sure their votes are counted."

The write-in count will be conducted by 30 "election officials who have worked for the division for a number of years," said Gail Fenumiai, director of the state's Division of Elections. They will be sitting in pairs at plastic tables. They will be joined not only by lawyers but by trained volunteers for both campaigns who will be permitted to observe the proceedings to confirm their fairness - or raise alarms if something goes wrong.

Officials expect the process to take days.

There may not be much of an appetite here for a prolonged battle, even among Miller's most die-hard supporters. That's in part because many of them believe he has a political future even if defeated, and they don't want him tarnished by an ugly battle.

"We need to pursue our legal avenues where they're obvious, but I don't think Joe needs to be looked at like he's dragging this out," said Eddie Burke, a local tea party activist and talk radio host. "If you do, you look like Al Gore and hanging chads."

Others worry that a long court fight would leave Alaska without full representation for months in Washington. That could be problematic for a far-flung state that receives millions in federal aid.

Bethany Marcum, 44, a tea party activist from Anchorage, said she is concerned about the issues the Miller campaign has raised but is hoping for a smooth outcome so whoever wins can get right to Washington.

"I have a concern that we won't have a legislator when the session begins," said Marcum, who described Murkowski as nice and professional but too liberal for the state. "If we feel like the votes are counted and it turns out Senator Murkowski got more votes, then okay."

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