Murkowsi, Murkowsky - Alaska Write-In Count Starts

November 11, 2010 - 11:08 AM

recount in Alaska

Alaska Elections Division Director Gail Fenumiai, right, and Assistant Attorney General Sarah Felix look over a ballot Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010, in Juneau, Alaska. Election officials planned to begin poring over more than 92,500 write-in ballots in the Alaska Senate race on Wednesday, in spite of a federal lawsuit that's challenging the way the count was to be conducted. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Juneau, Alaska (AP) - Murkowsi. Murkowsky. Even, possibly, Muckowski.

The count of the write-in ballots for Alaska's Senate began Wednesday - a laborious tallying process that bore some resemblance to the 2000 Florida presidential recount, though a decade later, it was misspellings and bad penmanship - not hanging chads - that took center stage in Juneau.

The race is a rematch of the GOP primary, featuring tea party favorite Joe Miller and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who ran an outsider write-in campaign in a bid to keep her job.

There were plenty of variations of Murkowski's last name, Murkowsi, Murkowsky, Muckowski; the most common among them were "Merkowski" or "Murcowski." There were even some Lizas.

At one table, early in the count, for each vote determined for Murkowski, an observer for Miller's campaign challenged that finding.

In some cases, state elections director Gail Fenumiai lifted up her glasses to scrutinize the ballots more closely. In a few others, she put ballots at the bottom of the box, saying she needed time to think about it.

It wasn't only Miller's camp that raised objections. Fenumiai's call to disallow "Lisa Murkaska" drew a challenge from one of Murkowski's attorneys.

Murkowski, hoping to make history as the first U.S. Senate candidate since 1954 to win as a write-in, focused intently on educating voters on this point during her campaign, saying it was the sure way to have their votes counted. She ran an ad riffing on a spelling bee, closed many of her rallying speeches by leading the crowds in spelling her last name - "MUR-KOW-SKI" - and handed out rubbery wristbands featuring a filled in oval and her name that voters were allowed to bring, discreetly, into the polling booth with them.

An early tally of 19,203 ballots Wednesday showed Murkowski winning 89 percent of the write-in vote without dispute and another 8.5 percent of ballots were counted for her but contested. There were two write-in votes for "Joe Miller."

Observers for Miller - whose vote total trailed the number of write-in ballots cast in the Nov. 2 election by 10,799 as of Wednesday - were quick to challenge virtually any ballot on which Murkowski's scribbled-in name was misspelled or letters were difficult to decipher.

The atmosphere remained calm, with election workers and observers going about their work studiously - getting the routine of scanning each ballot and declaring, "Challenge" or "Leave" downpat - as it aired for a statewide audience.

"It's not labor intensive; it's a little tedious, but it's the process" said ballot counter Dotty Brevik, 61, a retired fire department employee. She added: "I'm glad everyone's watching. It's good for the system, and I'm glad to be a part of it."

It played out in a cavernous building on the outskirts of the city, with the two candidates' lawyers and observers carefully watching it unfold.

While write-ins led Miller after thousands of absentee and early cast votes were tallied Tuesday, it's only now becoming clear who those votes were for. Murkowski was one of 160 write-in candidates, a roster bloated amid conservative calls to try to disrupt her campaign in the fiercely contested race's final days.

Workers, tasked with sorting through more than 92,500 write-in ballots, robotically cast aside ballots with clearly marked choices and paused to scrutinize others with mangled or odd spellings - singling those out for final judgment from Fenumiai, the elections director.

Fenumiai had hoped to finish the count Friday but expressed doubts about that Wednesday, given the plodding pace.

Hali Denton's been counting ballots in Alaska for 36 years and found the media attention overwhelming.

Still, she sees the hoopla as a positive thing: "We run really clean elections," said the 57-year-old retired state worker, TV cameras and a row of reporters behind her.

"This is Juneau, Alaska. This isn't Caracas," said John Tiemessen, a Miller attorney. "I would've been shocked if there would've been anything interesting" broadcast from this.

Fenumiai was generous in crediting misspellings to Murkowski's tally, drawing objections from Miller observers. She said if the name written was phonetically similar to Murkowski's, it would count.

"We're applying the statutory definition and going with that," said a Miller observer, AJ Ferate, of Oklahoma City.

Murkowski spokesman John Tracy suggested some of the challenges were frivolous. "This isn't supposed to be a penmanship test," he said. Tracy figured Miller needed one in nine ballots thrown out to have a shot.

Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto said the campaign was determined to see the counting process through.

The count began as planned in spite of a lawsuit filed Tuesday by Miller, seeking to prevent the state from using discretion in determining voter intent on individual ballots. Miller's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, said he wants to ensure a fair count.

A judge on Wednesday refused to stop the count while Miller's complaint is being considered and set briefing schedules for next week.

Miller maintains election law must be upheld in scrutinizing the ballots, meaning the ballots must have the oval filled in and either "Murkowski" or "Lisa Murkowski" written next to it to be a valid vote for Murkowski.

But election officials pointed to past case law in declaring their plans to use discretion in determining voter intent on ballots where voters misspell Murkowski's name, with a ruling coming from Fenumiai, with input from a state attorney. Officials have said they do not want to disenfranchise anyone.

The recourse for challenges is court, with the deadline to file a case next month.