Close Alaska Race May Stretch Beyond Election Day

The long, hard road to represent Alaska in the U.S. Senate could reach an end Tuesday. Or Election Day could just be the beginning.

Tea Party candidate Joe Miller won the Republican primary, upsetting powerful Senator Lisa Murkowski. But the Senator didn't accept the will of Republican voters, instead waging a write-in campaign, hoping to forge a coalition of Republicans, moderates and some Democrats to victory. This has opened up the race to Democrat Scott McAdams- the folksy mayor of Sitka who hopes Miller and Murkowski split the conservative vote, giving him the path to victory.

The takeaway from the Alaska Senate race is that if it's not a close election, we'll have a winner on election night. If it's close, we may not have a winner until late in November.

First, some basics: Most Alaskans vote the old-fashioned way: at the polls on Nov. 2. There are some absentees and early voting and military ballots, but they are small numbers. There are 438 polling locations in the state, and they are hand-counted by machine.

Most of the ballots will be counted election night, including those for Miller, McAdams and 160 write-in candidates (including Murkowski). If it is a runaway by Miller, McAdams or for write-ins, we should know a winner. Nobody is expecting this.

The overwhelming majority of write-in votes will be cast for Lisa Murkowski.

If it's close between Miller/McAdams/Write-in, precincts will then mail their ballots to Juneau, where the write-ins will be tabulated. They won't start counting until Nov. 18. The count is expected to take three days.

About counting the write-ins. To ensure chaos, lawyers and media will be able to sit in on the process. State law says the write-ins must match the exact spelling of the name on the candidate's statement of interest, but election officials said Friday they want to err on the side of determining a voter's intent.

"We want to make sure we don't disenfranchise voters," said Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who will oversee the election. "If you make an honest attempt and you're really trying to vote for someone, we're trying to determine that that vote did count for that person."

But with lawyers involved, Campbell conceded it won't always be easy to determine intent.

"The spelling, how close it is, and we go from there," he said. "Other than that, there is no way to determine intent."

Complicating this further is an Alaska Supreme Court decision that ruled that poll workers can provide a list of write-in candidates to voters who ask for it. Some early polling locations were posting a list of write-ins (including Murkowski, to her advantage) inside voting booths; the parties sued. The judge ruled poll workers could help voters who asked for it, but not post lists inside booths.

Alaska Elections Director Gail Fenumiai, who captained the elections division through a close Senate election in 2008, says the state is prepared.

"We've had elections that have been one vote apart," she said. "Elections in Alaska can be close, and we're used to it."