JUNEAU -- The Division of Elections has finished reviewing the write-in ballots for nearly three-quarters of the precincts, and the results show Lisa Murkowski on track to be the first write-in candidate elected to the U.S. Senate since 1954.
Ben Ginsberg, an election law expert who was flown to Alaska by Murkowski to advise on the count, said he was heading back home on Friday night.
"This is in good hands, and the outcome looks pretty obvious," said Ginsberg, a top lawyer for George W. Bush in the contentious 2000 Florida recount.
But Joe Miller's campaign isn't ready to give up. Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto said he could still envision the numbers swinging Miller's way in the end.
"I think we're still in the ballpark," DeSoto said.
The count stands at 98,565 write-ins and 87,517 votes for Miller after Friday's tally of absentee and questioned votes. That tally slightly widened the margin of write-ins over Miller to 11,048 votes.
Nearly 98 percent of those write-ins are being counted for Murkowski so far. More than 90 percent of Murkowski's write-in votes are not being challenged.
The Miller campaign has successfully challenged just 1.5 percent of the 69,249 write-in ballots that have been reviewed. The ballots unsuccessfully challenged by Miller are being segregated in boxes, and the courts could have the final say.
Miller has filed a lawsuit asking federal courts to force the state to throw out ballots that misspell Murkowski's name. He argues state law doesn't allow misspellings. But even if Miller's lawsuit succeeds, Murkowski could still have enough votes to win.
The Division of Elections has finished going through the write-ins for nearly 72 percent of the precincts in Alaska. That doesn't count the absentee and early vote write-in ballots, which will be reviewed this weekend and into next week.
Murkowski campaign manager Kevin Sweeney said he likes the results of the count but doesn't plan on declaring victory until at least next week. "I think it's fair to Alaskan voters for every vote to be counted before one side claims victory," Sweeney said.
All absentee ballots had to be postmarked by Election Day but have until Nov. 17 to arrive from overseas.
MILLER CAMP RAISES NEW QUESTIONS
The Miller campaign challenged 8.4 percent of the write-in ballots reviewed on Friday. That's slightly down from the average of 9.5 percent the previous two days. The Murkowski camp attributed that to complaints about Miller observers challenging ballots that were spelled correctly.
Miller campaign spokesman DeSoto suggested Friday's dip in challenges could be a coincidence rather than a trend. The Miller campaign says it never meant to challenge properly filled-out ballots, only those that were misspelled, hard to read, or otherwise open to question.
The Miller campaign has focused the last two days on raising questions about election integrity but has not provided evidence backing up its suggestions of voter fraud. Miller filed a lawsuit Friday seeking the voter rolls from the Division of Elections. The stated goal is to compare the number of ballots counted in each precinct to the number of people who signed their name on the voter rolls.
Two ballot observers for the Miller campaign are alleging they've seen things that aren't right during the review of the write-in ballots. The campaign said Elva Bettine signed an affidavit saying she believes many of the ballots she saw from a Cordova precinct had the name "Lisa Murkowski" all written in the same handwriting. Miller adviser Floyd Brown said the campaign would be asking for a handwriting analysis of those ballots.
The Miller campaign said it would provide the affidavits of Bettine and another Miller observer, Matt Johnson, but as of 9:30 p.m. had not done so.
The campaign said Johnson saw ballots from one precinct sorted into stacks before they should have been. One stack was described as being for-Miller votes, one for Democratic candidate McAdams, and one for all of the write-in ballots.
"Someone had previously accessed these ballots and sorted them in violation of the law and apparent violation of the chain of custody of these ballots," Brown alleged at a news conference.
Goldbelt Security is handling the ballots. It is a subsidiary of Goldbelt, the local Native corporation for Juneau. Brown hit on the fact Murkowski has a bill to benefit Sealaska, the regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska, and that Sealaska officials backed her campaign.
The Murkowski camp pointed to Brown's own background. He created the controversial "Willie Horton" television ad against the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign in 1988. He created a 1-900 telephone line in 1992 so callers could hear edited excerpts of telephone conversations between Clinton and Arkansas lounge singer Gennifer Flowers.
George H.W. Bush, the Republican president at the time, repudiated the Flowers phone line "as the kind of sleaze that diminishes the political process."
"Floyd has a history of never being right but always being sure," said Ginsberg, the election lawyer for George W. Bush who is now working for the Murkowski campaign. "He proved that today."