The hard-fought primary between Sen. Lisa Murkowski and her conservative challenger entered an important new phase today when election officials began counting thousands of outstanding ballots.
Joe Miller, backed by the Tea Party Express, leads Murkowski by 1,688 votes in a contest that has turned bitter in recent days with the challenger accusing the incumbent of trying to steal the election by tampering with the vote. Murkowski shot back by saying Miller is paranoid and dealing in trumped-up, misleading rhetoric.
The Alaska Division of Elections said it expects to count 15,272 absentee, questioned and early ballots Tuesday. They're part of at least 25,500 outstanding ballots that remain to be counted one week after Miller stunned political watchers by nearly upsetting Murkowski.
The delay in vote counting is not unprecedented.
Alaskans two years ago also were kept in suspense waiting to find out who would capture the state's other U.S. Senate seat.
A week after Election Day in November 2008, roughly 30 percent of the vote -- about 90,000 ballots -- had not been counted in the race between incumbent Republican Ted Stevens and his challenger, Democrat Mark Begich.
Stevens, who died earlier this month in an airplane crash, led Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, by 3,257 votes. Begich prevailed when the early, absentee ballots and questioned ballots were tallied.
Gail Fenumiai, director of the Alaska Division of Elections, said that officials were dealing with the same obstacles as two years ago.
Some far-flung villages off the road system do not have daily mail service and weather can hamper scheduled delivery, which means ballots and voter rolls can slowly trickle in.
The division two years ago took extra care with ballots after more than two dozen people voted twice in the primary. Most voted an absentee ballot, then showed up at their polling place and voted again.
Fenumiai said her division was again matching names on outstanding ballots to polling-place rolls, where voters are required to show identification and sign in.
That work had been completed Monday in 36 of Alaska's 40 election districts.
Not all of the outstanding ballots will be from the Republican primary. Democrats and other parties voted Aug. 24 on a separate ballot.
The winner of the GOP nomination will be the immediate front-runner in this heavily Republican state.