In Alaska, Murkowski isn't the only spelling that counts

They're counting more than 90,000 write-in ballots in the Alaska senate race. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who waged a write-in campaign to keep her job, is in a tight race with tea party favorite and GOP nominee Joe Miller.
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 10:49 PM

JUNEAU, Alaska -- How many ways can you vote for Lisa Murkowski?

If you cast a ballot for the incumbent senator from Alaska last week, you might have written in Murkowsky, Morkowski, Mirkowsky, Murkrowsky or Marcouski. You might have spelled it with a u so loopy that it looks like an e, or a k so elongated that it could be an n or maybe an h. You might have used such poor penmanship your third-grade teacher would be ashamed.

Which of those variations - and they all appeared on ballots opened here Wednesday, as the counting began - should qualify as valid votes is the subject of a legal battle that could leave the last big contest of the midterm elections unresolved for weeks or even months.

In a cavernous old print shop, the Alaska Division of Elections began the painstaking task of counting the more than 92,000 write-in ballots cast in the race between Murkowski, tea party favorite Joe Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams. The effort Murkowski launched after losing to Miller in the Republican primary could make her the first candidate in more than 50 years to win a U.S. Senate race on a write-in campaign.

The scene here Wednesday was something like the 2000 presidential recount in Florida, but colder. Dozens of elections workers in denim and fleece pored over ballots, sorting them into piles as lawyers and volunteers looked on, searching for misspelled names and other oddities that could affect the outcome of the race.

About 35 percent of the votes cast last week were for Miller and 23 percent were for McAdams, who has already conceded. Write-in ballots accounted for 40 percent of the votes. That means 11,333 of those ballots would have to be disqualified - or found to be for a candidate other than Murkowski - in order for Miller to win.

Though state officials have ruled that ballots with minor misspellings should be counted if the voter's intent is clear, Miller has argued in federal court that ballots must spell Murkowski's name correctly to be added to her tally.

Murkowski took extraordinary steps to ensure that voters would know how to spell her name. She blanketed the radio and television airwaves with commercials and handed out wristbands and temporary tattoos bearing her name.

For many of her supporters, it appears to have worked.

The count Wednesday favored the incumbent decisively. Of 19,203 write-in ballots counted, just 440 were cast for someone other than Murkowski.

Murkowski responded by tweeting, "And people doubted that Alaskans could spell my name!"

Elections officials overruled challenges to 1,629 ballots. That left 143 disputed votes.

Miller supporters made clear that they would not let a single error pass unchallenged.

"When they look me in the eye and say, 'Why did you disenfranchise me?' I'll say, 'I didn't. You did, by not spelling the name correctly,' " said William Peck, a software developer from Abingdon, Md., who flew out to help monitor the vote count as part of Miller's campaign.

But state officials, Murkowski's campaign and community advocates have argued that the law doesn't require such a strict standard, and that it could disenfranchise voters.

Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell (R), who oversees the Division of Elections, told reporters that the counting probably will take much longer than the three days they had initially hoped.

"There are probably going to be some challenges to the decision we're making on the write-ins," he said. "So we expect to have a recount. We expect it to go to court."

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