Alaska lawmaker thinks election law should be reviewed

VOTER INTENT: Senator wants to clarify the rules regarding write-in ballots.

December 29, 2010 

JUNEAU -- Alaska's Legislature should consider changing election law to make clear that voter intent is what matters in counting write-in ballots, a state lawmaker said Wednesday.

The change could help Alaska avoid a repeat of the recent legal wrangling between Republican nominee Joe Miller and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who lost the GOP nod in August but won the November general election on the strength of write-in votes.

State Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, told The Associated Press that his staff is looking at how other states handle write-in ballots.

Wielechowski stopped short of saying he would introduce legislation or that a proposal would come from the State Affairs Committee that he's set to chair. But he said the option of clarifying the law -- stressing that voter intent matters -- should be explored.

He said he intends to talk with fellow lawmakers to see if there is support for a change.

The issue of what constitutes a valid write-in ballot has been at the heart of the legal battle waged by Miller, a tea party favorite. He believes the state should have been held to a strict reading of the law and not be allowed to use discretion in tallying write-in ballots for Murkowski.

Official results released by the state Tuesday showed Murkowski winning by more than 10,000 votes. She is scheduled to be certified the winner today and become the first U.S. Senate candidate since 1954 to win with a write-in campaign.

Three courts have ruled against Miller, including U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline on Tuesday.

But Beistline, who refused to second-guess the state Supreme Court in its refusal to overturn the results favoring Murkowski, also said it was easy to understand Miller's argument, saying that the law is "poorly drafted."

Wielechowski said he considers that an important message to lawmakers. Miller himself favors changes, his spokesman said Wednesday.

The law calls for write-in ballots to have the ovals filled in and either the candidate's last name or name as it appears on the declaration of candidacy written. The section of law in which it appears states that the rules "are mandatory and there are no exceptions to them. A ballot may not be counted unless marked in compliance with these rules."

As Miller's camp argued, that meant the state should not have counted, as it did, ballots with misspellings or extra words, such as "Republican," for Murkowski.

The state defended its practices by pointing to case law. The state's high court found voter intent "paramount."

"I think most legislators, most Alaskans, support the idea that the voter's intent should be the most important thing," Wielechowski said. "I think that's what we need to clarify in the law."

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who took office earlier this month and oversees elections, has said he doesn't expect the administration to propose legislative changes. However, the administration is willing to work with the legislature, he said, and may participate in any oversight hearings that lawmakers might want to hold into the state's handling of the vote count. Republican House Speaker Mike Chenault said he's interested in looking into possible changes but he isn't sure how far he's willing to go with them. The legislature faces other big issues when it convenes in mid-January, with oil and gas taxes and the budget expected to be major topics.

"I think it deserves a look back to see if we can keep this from happening again," Chenault said, adding that he believes it will probably be taken up in some way.

Challenges made to ballots counted for Murkowski during a tedious, weeklong hand-count -- such as ballots with her party affiliation written in -- "were, in my mind, really trivial and just added to the whole circus-effect of the process," he said.

"I think, clearly, that voter intent has to be part of the statute," he said. "I guess, at what point do you take away somebody's right to vote?"

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