Reporting from Juneau, Alaska — The tedious scrutinizing of the more than 92,500 write-in ballots cast in the U.S. Senate race in Alaska got underway in a chilly warehouse Wednesday, with observers for Republican Joe Miller's campaign determined to challenge any variation in the spelling of rival Lisa Murkowski's name.
And judging from the multiple derivations voters attempted — Lisa Muroski, LSI Murkswke, Lisa Mvrowski, Lesa Merkesken, Lisa M., along with at least one ballot cast for Jesus Christ — there will be no shortage of opportunities for argument.
"We expect to have a recount. We expect it may go to court," Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell told reporters. "I believe the counters are doing a legitimate job of trying to determine the intent … and if it's then challenged in court, the court may be the final arbiter."
Still, early numbers showed that 89% of the write-in ballots counted by midday Wednesday were correctly filled in for Murkowski.
Of 7,638 write-ins counted, only 56 were for someone else, and 6,804 were unchallenged. Only 89 challenges were tentatively upheld by the state Division of Elections.
Miller's deficit to the number of ballots cast as write-ins — the majority presumed to be for Sen. Murkowski — had shrunk to about 11,300 votes by Wednesday as absentees continue to be counted.
Campaign lawyers for Miller filed suit seeking a preliminary injunction to force the state Division of Elections to interpret strictly the state law that says write-in ballots must contain a candidate's name, or at least the last name, as it was originally certified.
U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline refused, however, to grant a temporary restraining order halting the vote count until the issue can be resolved, ruling that no irreparable harm will occur from allowing the tally to proceed.
"The law is pretty clear that it has to be filled in just as it is on the declaration of candidacy," said Randy DeSoto, Miller's spokesman. "Our concern is the Legislature, when they made the law, wanted to get away from all this confusion by making it very clear."
State officials have said they are relying on at least two court decisions that require them to determine what a voter's intent was. If it's apparent that a voter intended to vote for Murkowski, even if there is a minor misspelling, Division of Elections chief Gail Fenumiai said she was counting it as a valid vote.
"If I can't make a phonetic understanding of the name, I say no," she said.
Ballots with misspelled names approved by Fenumiai and still challenged by Miller observers are being placed in separate envelopes so they can be scrutinized later by the board of elections, or by the courts if necessary.
Asked why some ballots spelled Morkowski were rejected and some spelled Merkowski were accepted, Campbell said he had confidence in the ability of the vote counters to count the tallies reliably and with integrity. But he insisted that minor misspellings were not enough to throw out a ballot.
"It could be one letter, it could be two letters [off]. Obviously if it goes further away from the correct spelling, it provides more opportunities for challenge," he said. "Because of the multiple language differences we have in the state of Alaska … a minor misspelling should not cause a voter to be disenfranchised."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has sent observers to back the Miller campaign, though Murkowski, if she prevails, has said she will continue to caucus with the Republican Party.
At most of the 15 tables lined up on the warehouse floor, apportioned equally with Republican, Democratic and nonpartisan observers, state Division of Elections counters were routinely setting aside Murkowski misspellings for Fenumiai to rule on individually. Miller observers appeared to be challenging nearly all misspellings.
"All they're doing is delaying this," said John Tracy, a spokesman for the Murkowski campaign who was watching the count. He predicted it would be nearly impossible for the Miller campaign to clear the hurdle needed to actually win the election — throwing out one in every nine write-in ballots cast.
For most of the day, he noted, the boxes stacked with unchallenged, correctly spelled votes for Murkowski appeared far fuller than the boxes of challenged ballots — an assessment Fenumiai agreed with.
"The story of today is the overwhelming ability of Alaskans to successfully conduct a write-in ballot," Tracy said. "If you look at the [correctly spelled ballot] box, Alaskans have overwhelmingly figured out how to spell Lisa Murkowski's name."
State officials have said they hope to complete the count within three days, but warned it could take longer if court challenges delay the process.