ANCHORAGE, Alaska – It took 50,000 signatures, four court appearances and a down-to-the-wire reprint of all the state's ballots, but a proposition to abolish U.S. Senate vacancy appointments (search) will be decided in the Nov. 2 election.
Currently, the governor can appoint a replacement, but only until a special election can be held.
The proposed measure would abolish appointments entirely, requiring a special election in all cases except when the vacancy occurs within 60 days of a primary election.
The initiative will appear on the same ballot as the Senate election in which incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski (search) is running a close race against Democrat Tony Knowles (search), a two-term former governor.
Murkowski was appointed to the seat vacated by her father, Frank Murkowski (search), when he became governor in 2002. That appointment spurred charges of nepotism that have followed her since. The drive by three Democratic lawmakers to put the measure on the ballot began after her appointment.
Opponents of the measure say the initiative, if passed, would leave Alaska without full representation until a replacement is elected. That could result in missing votes on issues important to Alaska, they contend.
The amount of time it would take to elect and swear in a replacement has been disputed by both sides.
Opponents also accuse the initiative's sponsors of using the measure as a campaign tool against Murkowski.
"They do that with the intent of gaining an advantage over the election of Lisa Murkowski," said state Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, who wrote in opposition to the initiative in the state's official election pamphlet.
Murkowski's campaign doesn't see the proposition affecting the Senate race.
"If the issue of the senator's appointment in general had an impact, she wouldn't have gotten 60 percent of the vote in the primary, which she did," said campaign spokesman Elliott Bundy.
Murkowski won 58 percent of the vote in August's primary election, defeating three Republican challengers.
The sponsors of the initiative deny the measure is a political attack on Murkowski.
"It's not about Lisa Murkowski. The only reason it's become about Lisa Murkowski is because the entire weight of the Murkowski administration has been focused on stopping it," said state Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage. "We wanted direct elections and only that. They fought that every step of the way."
The laws guiding how Alaska fills its Senate vacancies have been changed and tweaked repeatedly over the years. The initiative sponsors contend that the Republican majorities in past legislative sessions pushed through each change to ensure succession by their own party members.
Croft points to lawmakers in 1967 repealing a law requiring an appointee to be from the same political party as the senator to be replaced -- allowing Republican Ted Stevens to be appointed -- then putting the law back in place 31 years later.
Then in 2002, the law was tweaked again, allowing incoming governor Frank Murkowski to appoint a replacement senator instead of the outgoing Democrat: Knowles.
After Lisa Murkowski's appointment, Democratic lawmakers unsuccessfully attempted to legislate the elimination of appointments. Then Croft, Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage, and Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, decided to circulate a petition to force the measure on the ballot.
"These guys have been so shameless," Croft said of Republican lawmakers. "I see them constantly playing with the appointment power for partisan political advantage."
Seekins said the Democrats themselves are playing politics with the initiative, and that they are endangering the welfare of the state by potentially leaving a seat vacant for months.
"They do not mind leaving Alaska bare at a critical point in history if it will serve their political purpose," Seekins said.
Republican Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, who is the head of the state Division of Elections, took the measure off the ballot twice, first calling it unconstitutional and then later saying a bill passed in the spring made the initiative redundant.
The sponsors sued both times and the Alaska Supreme Court (search) ordered the measure back on the ballot on Aug. 20.
Initiative supporters again sued a month later, saying the four-sentence summary of the measure that would appear on the ballot was biased, inaccurate and misleading.
Leman said the wording -- that the measure would leave Alaskans without full representation for up to five months -- was factual and described an effect of the initiative.
An Anchorage judge ordered the language changed and all 517,000 state ballots reprinted and redistributed.
Ballots with the disputed summary had already been mailed to regional election offices in Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks and Nome when the order came down. Those ballots were held under lock and key until the order came to destroy them.
The reprinting and legal fees will come to more than $250,000, said Annette Kreitzer, Leman's chief of staff.
"It's big news when you have to reprint ballots, and believe me, it's not something we wanted," Kreitzer said.
Some 4,500 advance ballots already distributed to absentee voters were not recalled, said Tom Godkin, Division of Elections administrative supervisor. They will be counted in the vote tallies, but kept separate from the other ballots in case of a legal challenge, he said.
Crawford said the protracted legal battle and the expense to the state were regrettable but worth it, especially if Alaska is faced with replacing another senator in the near future.
"When Eric and I wrote this initiative, what we were talking about was future appointments. It could be quite possible for Frank Murkowski to make another appointment before his term is over. We don't want to give anybody the power of incumbency," Crawford said.
Croft said a worrisome scenario would be Stevens' retirement and Murkowski appointing son Ben Stevens, who is a state senator, to fill the unexpired term. Ted Stevens turns 81 next month.
"Ted Stevens has no more right to hand this to his son than Frank had to hand it to his daughter," Croft said.
Courtney Schikora, Stevens' spokeswoman, said she knows of no retirement plans for Stevens.