Alaska Senate election review on track to finish by midsession

UNCERTAINTY: State aims to clarify statute, avoid repeat of 2010.

January 25, 2011 

JUNEAU -- An internal review of the 2010 election that left Alaska's historic U.S. Senate race in limbo for nearly two months should be mostly completed within 45 days, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell said Tuesday.

At that point -- likely more than halfway through the legislative session -- legislation might be needed to clarify state law or improve the state's elections process, Treadwell told The Associated Press. Bills aimed at doing that are before the Legislature now, and Treadwell said his office will work with lawmakers on those while the review is pending.

A goal of the review, being handled by Treadwell's office, the state Department of Law and the Division of Elections, is to avoid a repeat of the litigation and uncertainty surrounding the Senate race.

Republican Joe Miller sued over the state's counting of votes for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who mounted a write-in campaign after losing the GOP primary to Miller. Miller argued the state should have adhered to a strict reading of a law that calls for write-in ballots to have the oval filled in and the written last name of the candidate or the name as it appears on a declaration of candidacy. The state, pointing to case law, allowed for misspellings and used discretion to determine voter intent.

Three courts refused to overturn election results favoring Murkowski, though a federal judge said the state law concerning write-in ballots is poorly written.

Treadwell said the state's review will look at whether voter intent should be a part of the rules for counting write-in ballots, whether write-in candidates should continue to be required to officially declare their candidacies, and whether the state has sufficient safeguards in place to prevent felons from wrongfully voting.

Miller also raised questions about voting irregularities, including precincts in which election workers did not mark whether they'd gotten voter identification and ballots with similar-appearing signatures. Those might have been the result of voters asking for and receiving legally acceptable help in casting ballots.

Miller raised the possibility, too, that felon sex offenders might have been wrongfully allowed to cast ballots.

The state review also will touch on such issues, Treadwell said.

"We're trying to be as inclusive as possible" in addressing concerns raised by citizens and candidates, and the public will have an opportunity to comment, he said.

Treadwell defended the division's handling of the vote count Tuesday. He said an outside party may be asked to look at ballot security measures, though that aspect is not included in the 45-day window, according to a memo he sent the attorney general and director of the Division of Elections.

One of the bills aimed at clarifying the law got its first hearing Tuesday in the Senate State Affairs Committee. It would allow the director of the Division of Elections to "disregard any abbreviation, misspelling or other minor variation" in a candidate's name "if the intention of the voter can be ascertained."

Any tinkering to the existing law could get tricky. Sen. Joe Paskvan, D-Fairbanks, said if lawmakers try to be "all inclusive" in their definition of what should or shouldn't be counted, it could end up disenfranchising voters; if they're too narrow, he said it could lead to lawsuits in the future.

He said common sense has to guide the director.

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