By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; A03
JUNEAU, ALASKA - Sen. Lisa Murkowski appeared to have a solid lead Thursday in this state's closely watched Senate contest, despite aggressive attempts by her opponent's campaign to disqualify as many write-in ballots as possible.
About 89 percent of those ballots that have been counted are cleanly for Murkowski, who waged a last-minute write-in campaign to keep her seat. Hundreds more - about 8 percent - have been challenged because of misspellings and other issues by Joe Miller, a tea-party-backed lawyer who toppled the senator in the Republican primary.
About a third of the roughly 92,000 write-in ballots have been counted, and the process is likely to take a couple more days. In last week's election, Miller garnered 35 percent of the ballots, while 40 percent of the voters wrote in their selection. Most of those write-in ballots are presumed to be for Murkowski, who made an extraordinary effort to reach out to voters and remind them how to spell her name.
Most of the challenged ballots eventually will be counted toward Murkowski's total unless a court intervenes. Miller has argued that the state must throw out all ballots on which Murkowski's name is misspelled. But state officials said that the law does not have such a strict standard and that they will accept minor misspellings if the voter's intent is clear.
According to Alaska law, a write-in vote "shall be counted if the oval is filled in for that candidate and if the name, as it appears on the write-in declaration of candidacy, of the candidate or the last name of the candidate is written in the space provided."
Murkowski campaign officials say they have been pleased with how many voters have accurately written Murkowski's name. They think they may be able to win even if many of the challenged votes are thrown out.
"Given the current trends, the actual number of ballots that have misspellings, with that number we would still have a margin of victory," said Kevin Sweeney, a Murkowski campaign spokesman.
Miller campaign volunteers who are serving as vote-count monitors are on the lookout for misspellings of Murkowski's name - Mirkowski and Murkowsky have been common ones - but they have also challenged ballots that say "Murkowski, Lisa" or "Lisa Murkowski Republican." Some of the challenged ballots appear to have Murkowski's name spelled perfectly.
The tactic has drawn criticism, including from Alaska native groups that say they will be disproportionately affected if misspelled ballots are thrown out because Alaska natives heavily backed Murkowski. The Alaska Federation of Natives, which endorsed the senator, has asked the Justice Department's civil rights division to oversee the vote-count process.
Miller volunteers say they are not seeking to disenfranchise voters but to apply the law. They liken it to the speed limit: You may not realize you have a lead foot, but you still must pay your ticket. And a spokesman for Miller's campaign said it is appropriate for volunteers to challenge ballots that seem a little off so they receive further scrutiny.
"Right now, we just want the law upheld and clarified, and we're segregating all the challenged ballots for review," said Randy DeSoto, a spokesman for Miller's campaign.
Miller is challenging the count in federal court; the state argues the case should move first through the state court system.