The Election that Won't End

Come to Juneau, pack for the winter.

The hand count to determine the winner of the Alaska Senate race between Joe Miller and Senator Lisa Murkowski is going to take a lot longer than expected. Alaska officials had anticipated three days of counting ballots, but now they say they'll be tallying write-in votes through the end of next week. Welcome to Alaska elections.

Officials hope to finish counting all the votes cast at precincts on Election Day by Sunday afternoon. But then they'll start counting 15,000 early votes, more than 30,000 absentee votes and over 10,000 challenge ballots. They won't certify this election until after Thanksgiving.

Murkowski is trying to become the first person since Strom Thurmond in 1954 to win a statewide race as a write-in candidate. She appears headed for that remarkable accomplishment based on trends established over the first day and a half of counting.

So far about nine out of ten write-in voters correctly spelled her name and filled in the oval that translates to 89-percent of the write-in votes going to Murkowski without a challenge from Miller observers. 9-percent of the write-in votes are being challenged over minor spelling errors, the addition of a comma or in some cases because the Miller observer could not adequately read the handwriting. The elections director, Gail Fenumiai, who is making the call on all challenged ballots, is giving nearly all of those votes to Murkowski. Her standard is whether or not she can phonetically sound out the name Murkowski from the spelling on the ballot. There have been many variations, but the most common misspellings have been M-E-R-K-O-W-S-K-I and M-U-R-C-O-W-S-K-I.

Only a tiny fraction of the write-in votes are not being counted for Murkowski. Joe Miller went into this hand count trailing the "write-in" by more than 13,000 votes. He contends that vote counters are violating state law by using discretion with regard to misspelled names. The law says names must appear as they are written on the declaration of write-in candidacy form filled out before the election.

Miller already had a legal setback on that issue Wednesday when a federal judge refused to issue an injunction stopping the hand count. Arguments will be made in court on the merits of discerning voter intent next week. Short of a legal victory and a whole lot more misspellings than we've seen so far, Miller appears headed for