Among the many closely scrutinized Senate races in this mid-term election cycle, Alaska continues to be in the headlines. The numerous twists, turns and developing stories continue beyond Election Day as write-in ballots are counted and challenged; as legal briefs are filed and court injunctions requested. Though the final winner of the election is to be formally announced at the end of the month it is unclear whether this will be the end of the controversy.
The election cycle drama began when Tea Party favorite Joe Miller pulled off an upset in the primary to take the Republican nomination from incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski conceded but soon decided to run a write-in campaign to retain her seat. Her campaign gained steam with Alaska residents, unions and other organizations including the Alaska Federation of Natives endorsed her campaign. As Election Day neared, a number of controversies surrounded Miller including his questionable qualifications to purchase low-income hunting licenses, misuse of government computers when he was employed by the Fairbanks Burrough, and the “arrest” of a reporter by Miller’s security team at a public event. Supporters for Democrat Scott McAdams hoped that Alaskans would turn from the controversies and battles between Murkowski and Miller and vote Democrat. McAdams, a candidate with strong tribal ties, was considered a long shot though his poll numbers were gaining up through Election Day.
Murkowski waged an aggressive campaign, with numerous mailers and yard signs informing the public how to cast a proper write-in vote. Miller spoke to national media, but became progressively less available to local press. McAdams matured from a fledgling candidate into a well-spoken advocate for issues championed by his campaign including tribal sovereignty.
On election night 40 percent of the votes were for write-in candidates, presumably for Murkowski; 35 percent for Miller and 26 percent for McAdams.
Even before election workers began poring over write-in ballots, the Miller campaign implied that results would be tainted. The state determined to begin the count of write-in ballots early in the hope that the election would be resolved more quickly. As the write-in vote count continues, observers from the Miller campaign are challenging a number of ballots.
The Alaska Division of Elections has indicated that voter intent will be considered while the Miller campaign maintains that the strict letter of the law requires perfect spelling of a write-in candidate’s name. According to the state, case law supports voter intent as the standard though Alaska state law calls for precise spelling. The Miller campaign has challenged some of the ballots on the grounds that a misspelling of Murkowski’s name is actually a “protest vote” for Miller. According to news stories Nov. 12, reporters at the scene are puzzled about the cause for many of the Miller challenges to write-in votes. A number of absentee ballots also remain to be counted from western and interior Alaska where Murkowski expects strong support and from military absentee votes where Miller expects to be favored.
In protest of the Division of Elections process, lawyers for the Miller campaign filed in federal court for an injunction to have the count stopped. Their request was denied, and briefings will be filed this week in the case. The judge is also asking lawyers to address why the case should be heard first in federal court, bypassing the state’s jurisdiction.
As of this writing, Murkowski appeared to be holding a lead of about 10,000 votes with more than half of the 90,000 write-in ballots counted. Close to 90 percent of the Murkowski votes have gone unchallenged with a large percentage of the challenged votes still going to Murkowski. Challenged votes are being segregated for further examination in the event of pending legal challenges. The vote count will continue for most of the month. The deadline for receiving mail-in ballots mailed from the United States is Friday, Nov. 12 with a deadline of Nov. 17 for absentee ballots from outside the country, including military ballots. Election results are scheduled to be formally announced Nov. 29.