JUNEAU, Alaska — Election workers will begin scrutinizing tens of thousands of ballots in the Alaska Senate race on Wednesday in a scene reminiscent of the 2000 Florida recount. There will be no hanging chads this time around – just lots of scribbled names.
The vote count could help determine whether Sen. Lisa Murkowski wins re-election as a write-in candidate – or whether the courts get the final say in what has been a fiercely contested race.
Murkowski waged an aggressive write-in campaign after losing the GOP primary to the Sarah Palin-backed candidate Joe Miller. Write-ins held an overall lead of 11,557 Tuesday, when early-cast and some absentee ballots were added to the election night count. It remains unclear how many of those write-ins were for Murkowski or for the 159 other write-in candidates.
In the first batch of nearly 22,500 absentee and early cast ballots counted Tuesday, Miller showed a gain of 1,882 votes on the write-in candidates. A total of nearly 29,000 absentee ballots were expected to be tallied Tuesday.
Miller has ceded nothing, calling Murkowski's pronouncement that she's "made history" premature.
The two sides have hired attorneys and started raising money for what could become a lengthy court battle – the first lawsuit was filed late Tuesday – particularly if the vote count tightens. Murkowski's legal team includes Ben Ginsberg, who worked for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney during the 2000 Florida recount.
In that presidential election, it boiled down to ballots with hanging chads and confusion over what votes to count. There are no chads in Alaska's election process. To make a vote count, voters had to fill in an oval on the write-in section of the ballot, and then write a name.
That's where it gets complicated.
What happens if people misspell Murkowski? What if the handwriting isn't legible? What if a voter scribbles the name "Lisa M." instead of the full Murkowski?
Under state law, the write-in oval must be filled in and either a candidate's last name or the name as it appears on her candidacy declaration has to be written in. Miller's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, said he intends to hold the state to that standard.
Election officials made clear Monday that they will use discretion in determining voter intent where the written name "appears to be a variation or misspelling" of Murkowski or Lisa Murkowski. Van Flein called that practice unacceptable.
Van Flein filed a lawsuit Tuesday asking a federal judge to uphold that law. He's seeking a Wednesday hearing. A spokesman for the Alaska Division of Law had no immediate comment.
Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who oversees elections, said the write-in count would go on as scheduled Wednesday.
The process will play out like this: Beginning Wednesday in an obscure building on the outskirts of Juneau, there were will be 15 tables where 30 ballot counters will analyze more than 91,000 write-in ballots by hand. Each table will count an Alaska house district, and work through it one precinct at a time.
The campaigns will have one observer each at every table, and reporters will be allowed in the room to watch the count unfold. Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai will be on hand to settle disputes, in consultation with legal counsel for the state.
The ballots will be brought onsite by a security detail, and will remain at the counting site.
Neither Miller nor Murkowski plans to be on hand for the count. Miller was in Juneau on Tuesday to meet with volunteers, then planned to spend the rest of the week elsewhere in Alaska.
Murkowski returned to Washington for a legal defense fund fundraiser on Monday. She planned to spend time with family and return to work when the lame duck session of Congress convenes Monday.
Both campaigns were training observers Tuesday.
Murkowski spent much of her campaign educating voters on the write-in process. "Fill it in, write it in," became her mantra and she handed out wristbands and even ran an ad riffing on a spelling bee aimed at instructing voters how to spell her name properly.
This is the first write-in campaign in a major race in Alaska since 1998, and election officials were still finalizing instructions for ballot counters Monday, leaving campaign officials grumbling.
Officials have at times made contradictory statements or changed things.
For example, the counting of write-in ballots was pushed up eight days from the initially announced date. The move was intended to avoid keeping citizens and candidates in the dark, said Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who oversees elections. Van Flein said it created logistical hurdles.
Campbell also reversed course and said a write-in vote for "Joe Miller" would count toward the GOP nominee's tally.