The Alaska Division of Elections said Thursday that it has more than 20,000 absentee and questioned ballots left to process from Tuesday's primary election. Most are expected to be Republican primary ballots that will decide the too-close-to-call race between U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Joe Miller.
Miller is currently leading Murkowski by 1,668 votes.
Elections officials on Thursday evening released the first detailed breakdown of the remaining ballots.
The state has received back 11,266 absentee ballots so far out of over 16,000 requested. The ballots had to be postmarked by Tuesday's election but can come in as much as 15 days afterward.
There are also 658 early votes not yet counted and 8,972 questioned ballots. A ballot can be "questioned" for several reasons. Often the reason is that the voter cast the ballot in a precinct other than where they live.
Miller said in a Thursday interview that he expects to maintain his lead with the help of military absentee voters. He also said Murkowski shouldn't think about a third-party candidacy or an independent write-in effort if she loses in the primary.
"If Sen. Murkowski is going to keep her word, she's going to get out -- if the voters decide that in fact I prevail in this primary election. She said at the Kenai forum on Friday that she would respect the will of the Alaskan voter and we're going to hold her to it," Miller said by phone from Fairbanks.
Murkowski campaign manager John Bitney responded that Murkowski was focused on the ballots that are left to be counted and "any speculation about anything else is absolutely premature."
There is a possibility that Murkowski could run on the Libertarian ticket in the November general election if she loses the Republican primary. The Alaska Libertarian Party is discussing the possibility and its Senate candidate, David Haase, has said he is open to talking to Murkowski about him stepping aside.
Andrew Halcro, a Murkowski supporter who served with her in the state Legislature, called Haase on Wednesday and discussed the possibility. Halcro said he was acting on his own and not coordinating with the Murkowski campaign.
Halcro said he did bring it up with Murkowski on Thursday morning. "She said what she's told (the media), that she's considering all the options," he said.
Halcro said he thinks Murkowski should pursue the Libertarian route if she doesn't win the primary. She has the campaign cash left and a network in place to run a strong statewide campaign, he said.
THREE MORE COUNTS
The Division of Elections isn't saying how many of the ballots left to count are for the Republican primary and how many are for the Democratic primary.
But three times more Republican than Democratic ballots were cast on Election Day in the Senate race. Murkowski campaign manager Bitney watched absentees being sorted at the Division of Elections Thursday and said a "very, very high percentage" of them were Republican.
Anchorage attorney Tom Van Flein was at the Division of Elections observing for the Miller campaign.
Van Flein is best known as the personal lawyer for Sarah Palin, who endorsed Miller.
The Division of Elections plans to count all the absentee ballots on Aug. 31 that it has received by then. Some of the questioned ballots will be disqualified; for example if it turns out the voter really wasn't registered in Alaska. Those that are valid will likely be counted on Sept. 3. Elections officials said they'll do a final count of absentees and any other remaining ballots on Sept. 8.
The number of remaining ballots changes daily as more absentees come in and there's no way to know how many will be disqualified. But if all the current number of 20,896 remaining ballots were counted and three-fourths of them voted in the Republican Senate primary, Murkowski would need the vote on roughly 55 percent to win.
Both sides are keeping close watch. The Washington Post cited unnamed sources in reporting Thursday that the National Republican Senatorial Committee will be sending lawyer Sean Cairncross to assist Murkowski's campaign during the ballot count. It's not clear what his role will be, but Miller called it questionable.
"We're just hoping that the lawyering up that's going on with the National Republican Senatorial Committee isn't going to be resulting in any improper meddling in our primary," Miller said.
Miller said he's beating Murkowski because of his volunteer network and "common sense message."
"Alaskans are common sense folk, they recognize our nation is at a bankrupt position right now," he said.
Murkowski campaign manager Bitney said people should remember "he hasn't won yet."More on the primary election
By SEAN COCKERHAM