As Alaska counts Senate write-in votes, Murkowski camp says Miller too far back

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 Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 10:02 PM

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska appeared to be well on her way to keeping her U.S. Senate seat on Saturday as the results of a contentious write-in vote count continued to tilt in her favor.

Murkowski's campaign argued that challenger Joe Miller has no chance of closing an 11,000-vote gap between him and the incumbent, who launched an aggressive write-in campaign for the seat after Miller defeated her in the GOP primary.

A Murkowski victory would make her the first U.S. Senate candidate in 56 years to win a write-in campaign. A win would also mark a rebuke for the Republican leadership, which shunned Murkowski, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who loudly endorsed Miller, a tea party favorite.

On Election Day, Alaskans gave 87,517 votes to Miller and 98,565 votes to a write-in candidate. Democrat Scott McAdams soon after conceded defeat. State election officials have awarded Murkowski about 98 percent of the write-in ballots that have been counted so far.

The Murkowski campaign contended Saturday that even if all of the ballots challenged by Miller were thrown out, he would be unable to make up the difference. The Murkowski campaign also said the number of challenges by Miller "dropped noticeably" this weekend, making his chances of success even lower.

Miller said Saturday that he would not fight a clear victory for Murkowski but that he would make no announcement until after absentee ballots from military voters are counted this week, the Associated Press reported.

"I think to call the race, to say that their vote doesn't matter, to forget about counting their votes, I think that's an inappropriate approach," he said.

By midday Saturday, election officials had counted nearly 60 percent of the write-in ballots. They said they expected to wrap up the process by Monday at the latest. Miller has successfully challenged fewer than 2 percent of the write-ins during four days of counting.

Miller's strategy in the fight was to challenge as many write-in votes as possible to close the gap between him and Murkowski. The Republican nominee's campaign also objected to the counting standards used by state election officials, who ruled that ballots would be awarded to Murkowski as long as the intent of the voter was clear. Miller's lawyers argued for a more stringent standard that would effectively forbid spelling errors or other minor mistakes.

Murkowski, in an interview late Friday on CNN, said the challenges were an "act of desperation" by a candidate who is unlikely to prevail.

"In order for Miller to even be able to get close, he's going to have to have so many of these votes that have written in my name . . . thrown out," Murkowski said. "You should not be arguing over penmanship when you're talking about validating an individual's vote."

Another sign of Miller's dwindling chances is a small exodus of lawyers who had traveled to Anchorage to help the candidates in the ballot battle. One of those who departed Saturday was Murkowski attorney Ben Ginsberg, who represented George W. Bush in the 2000 Florida recount fight against Democrat Al Gore.

"I leave confident in the outcome given the competency of the Division of Elections and the excellent team the Murkowski campaign has assembled," Ginsberg said in a statement.

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