ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Ruling in favor of a group that challenged the wording of a ballot initiative, a judge ordered the state to rewrite, reprint and redistribute all its ballots for the Nov. 2 election.
The initiative concerns how the state fills its U.S. Senate vacancies, a heated issue since Republican Frank Murkowski (search) appointed his daughter, Lisa Murkowski (search), to his Senate seat when he was elected governor in 2002.
Currently, the governor can appoint a replacement to a vacant Senate seat. The initiative would abolish appointments and require a special election in all cases except when the vacancy occurs within 60 days of a primary election.
Lt. Gov. Loren Leman (search), the Republican chief of the Division of Elections, twice removed the measure from the Nov. 2 ballot but was ordered by the Alaska Supreme Court (search) to put it back on.
He wrote the initiative's ballot summary, which said the proposition would leave Alaska without full representation in the Senate for three to five months.
Trust the People (search), which includes several Democratic legislators, petitioned for the initiative. The group sued for an injunction once it discovered the language of the summary on Sept. 21, saying that with a special election, a vacant seat could be filled in three months in almost all cases.
Superior Court Judge Morgan Christen agreed with the group that the four-sentence summary was inaccurate and biased. The summary also says the measure would leave Alaska without full representation in the Senate, wording that is not impartial, she wrote.
"Emphasizing one consequence to the exclusion of others is impermissible advocacy," Christen wrote.
At a hearing Wednesday, an attorney for Trust the People, Jeff Feldman, accused Leman of resisting the proposition at every stage, keeping the language of the summary secret and trying to run out the clock before changes could be made.
Assistant Attorney General Sarah Felix said at the hearing that the summary adequately described the effects of the initiative and that it was too late to change the ballots. The summary was posted on the Division of Election's Web site on Sept. 8, she said.
Christen wrote in her order that the cost and delay could have been avoided if the state had shown the summary to the group before printing the ballot.
Christen ordered the state to write a new summary, submit the new language to initiative sponsors and file it with the court. Trust the People will have a day to object to the new summary.
A Department of Law spokesman said he did not know whether the state will appeal.
Elections officials said that they could comply with the order. Thomas Godkin, an administrative supervisor for the Division of Elections, said it will take 15 days to reprint and redistribute the 517,000 ballots and will cost the state about $295,000.
Ballots are required to arrive at regional election offices 25 days before the election. Reprinting and redistributing them will break that deadline, but Godkin said there is little danger of any precinct not receiving its ballots by Nov. 2, or of any absentee or early voter not being able to cast a ballot.
They also would have to send replacements for about 4,500 ballots that have already been mailed to people overseas and in the most remote parts of Alaska.
Alaskans also can vote absentee in person or by fax up to 15 days before an election, or by mail seven days before an election.
Sen. Murkowski is running to keep her job Nov. 2, facing Democrat Tony Knowles, a two-term former governor.