The Division of Elections has reviewed write-in ballots for almost half the precincts in Alaska and is counting nearly 98 percent of them for Lisa Murkowski. The Murkowski campaign is acting confident of victory and is accusing Joe Miller of taking "desperate" measures to try to win.
The state Thursday finished its second day of going through the write-in ballots in Juneau. More than 45,000 of them have been reviewed so far. Counting resumes this morning and is expected to continue through the weekend.
The Murkowski campaign said "it couldn't be going any better" and that the Miller campaign has resorted to challenging perfectly spelled ballots.
"It's an act of desperation," said Anchorage ad executive John Tracy, part of the Murkowski campaign's ballot-count-monitoring team. "Really the only thing that seems clear is that they're trying to pump up their challenged ballot numbers."
Examples were not hard to find of Miller observers challenging Murkowski ballots that were spelled accurately and looked to be filled out properly. More often, the challenged ballots had a letter misspelled in Murkowski's last name or the word "Republican" written on the ballot next to it.
Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto said he couldn't comment on the individual judgments made by his candidate's ballot observers. But he said the campaign isn't out to challenge straightforward votes. He said the Miller camp's aim is to challenge misspelled ballots, those with legibility issues, that are filled in wrong, or otherwise open to question.
"All we're doing right now is identifying any ballots that are questionable, have any deviation from the standard," DeSoto said.
It appears as though Miller needs to keep about 12 percent of the write-ins from going for Murkowski. The count has been steady over the past two days, with more than 89 percent of the reviewed write-in votes going unchallenged for Murkowski, slightly more than the absolute minimum she would need.
Elections Director Gail Fenumiai overturned challenges by the Miller campaign on another 8 percent of the write-ins and counted them for Murkowski.
Those are segregated into boxes and considered "counted but challenged." The courts could have the final say on what happens with them.
Miller has filed a lawsuit asking the federal courts to throw out any misspelled ballots or those that otherwise don't match Murkowski's name as she wrote it on her declaration of candidacy.
Miller hopes the lawsuit and the rest of the absentee and questioned ballots will turn it around.
"You have to feel great about Joe Miller's chances to win this election," declared Floyd Brown, a longtime conservative activist who came to Juneau Thursday as an adviser to Miller on the count.
Brown is well known as the man responsible for the "Willie Horton" television ad that helped derail the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign in 1988.
He's founder of Citizens United, whose Supreme Court case opened the way to unlimited donations from corporations and unions to some political committees, including Alaskans Standing Together, the Alaska Native organization that was so effective in helping Murkowski's write-in bid. Brown, who currently runs a website dedicated to impeaching President Barack Obama, said he's been on the ground in Alaska "since a few days after the election."
MINOR MISSPELLINGS OK
The Miller campaign on Thursday continued to object to how the ballots are being counted. Fenumiai, the state elections director, said she's accepting minor misspellings on the write-in ballots and that "if I can pronounce the name by the way it's spelled, that's the standard I'm using."
Miller's lawsuit argues that state law doesn't allow that. The law says the vote is counted "if the name, as it appears on the write-in declaration of candidacy, of the candidate or the last name of the candidate is written in the space provided."
Miller campaign spokesman DeSoto said that means no misspellings allowed. "The state of Alaska does not have a voter intent law," DeSoto said.
Ben Ginsberg, an elections lawyer working for the Murkowski campaign, said that's not true. Ginsberg was a top lawyer for George W. Bush during the Bush v. Gore 2000 presidential race recount in Florida.
He said the most recent court ruling was over the 2007 recount of the state legislative race between Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham and Carl Moses of Unalaska. That case was about marking the ovals properly, not misspelled write-ins. But the Alaska Supreme Court ruling on the case noted that "we have consistently emphasized the importance of voter intent in ballot disputes."
In any case, Ginsberg said, a "significant percentage" of the challenged ballots he's seen weren't even misspelled.
NEW LAWSUIT PLANNED
The Miller campaign said it's planning a new lawsuit seeking voter rolls from the Division of Elections. The aim is to compare ballots counted in each precinct with the number of people who signed the rolls, Brown said.
Brown announced the lawsuit at a press conference Thursday in the same room where the write-in review was taking place. He stood in front of the cameras and suggested possible voter fraud in Alaska's election but stopped short of saying the campaign was making that allegation.
The only evidence that Brown provided was an affidavit from a poll watcher in Fairbanks, Rocky MacDonald. MacDonald complained that the ballot box at the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds precinct "was unsecured in that the electoral judges had access to the inside of the ballot box with a key."
"The electoral judges opened the ballot box several times to clear jammed ballots and rearrange by hand the ballots in the box to make space for new ballots," MacDonald wrote in the affidavit.
MacDonald complained the ballot counter on the box wasn't working from the time the polls opened until 8:30 a.m., and that there was only one ballot box at that precinct.
Brown said the Miller campaign has set up a hot line for complaints of fraud.
Murkowski campaign manager Kevin Sweeney responded that the press conference shows how "for the Miller campaign, it's become desperate time."
"He's making accusations without giving any meat to those accusations," Sweeney told reporters.
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call 257-4344.