Senate race heats up over ballot counting

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services
Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News

Joe Miller's campaign alleged possible vote tampering and asked for Alaska State Troopers to be dispatched to elections offices going into today's first count of absentee and questioned ballots in the Republican U.S. Senate primary. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Monday she was "astounded" at what she called Miller's false allegations of attempts on her side to steal the election.

The Alaska Division of Elections said there was no evidence to support the Miller campaign's claim that a Murkowski ballot observer accessed the state's computerized election management system. Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who oversees Alaska elections, said there was no security breach but that he would keep looking into the matter because the "actions of the observer are a little frustrating." He said the observer broke the rules by texting in the ballot room and tried to bring in a bag.

Campbell said there is no need to dispatch state troopers to the elections offices. But the lieutenant governor said he is asking for a state attorney to be there from now on as ballots are validated.

This comes as the Alaska Division of Elections today starts its first count of absentee and questioned ballots. Miller leads Murkowski by 1,668 votes with more than 25,000 votes to be processed. Most are expected to be Republican primary ballots, which include the Miller-Murkowski race. The Alaska Division of Elections isn't saying how many ballots it will get through, but Murkowski campaign spokesman Steve Wackowski said he's heard it will be about 15,000.

The count is to include 496 ballots from the Laurel/Dowling area of South Anchorage that weren't counted on Election Day. Elections workers had uploaded a touch-screen memory card that made it look like the results had been reported but didn't upload the card used to count the ballots, according to the Division of Elections.

More counts are scheduled for Friday and Sept. 8.

Miller told ABC/Washington Post's "Top Line" on Monday that he believes "national folk" are trying to "skew the results" for Murkowski. Miller has complained about the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee sending a lawyer to Alaska to assist Murkowski. His campaign has also suggested that the NRSC was behind phone calls made to absentee voters asking them how they voted. The NRSC has denied that but withdrew its lawyer.

Murkowski said Monday she was "astounded that Mr. Miller continues to make blatantly false accusations that there is something nefarious happening."

The latest drama came as Miller campaign lawyer Tom Van Flein asked for an investigation into possible vote tampering by Mike Roman, an elections consultant the Murkowski campaign brought to Alaska. "We urgently ask for your review and we ask that state Troopers be posted at each regional office until the ballots are secured," Van Flein wrote in the complaint to elections officials.

The Division of Elections investigated and found the most alarming allegation in the Van Flein complaint was unfounded. Van Flein alleged Roman used the state computer at the Division of Elections office in Wasilla and that for 20 minutes "this Murkowski observer was in the state's voter records viewing private information and, we are told, accessed the state's election management system."

Van Flein wrote in the complaint that the state's Diebold voting software "contains vulnerabilities that may allow someone to install malicious software to discount votes." Van Flein suggested that there may need to be a hand count of ballots or an IT computer audit in order to verify that Roman didn't do anything like that.

Elections officials said Roman did request access to the computer with the state's voter registration system but was not allowed. Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai said he would have not been able to compromise the system anyway. "There is no GEMS server in the Wasilla office, so there's no way the state ballot tabulation system was compromised," Fenumiai said.

Van Flein said Monday night that the complaint was verified by Miller election observers on the scene. "We have a statement from an eye witness establishing that the Murkowski observer in fact was using the Division of Elections desk top computer for up to 10 minutes," he said.

Alaska Division of Elections Director Fenumiai disputed that, saying the observer did not use any state computer.

Elections officials said Roman did break the rules by texting from inside the ballot room. He also tried to bring a large bag into the room, against instructions, which Miller campaign lawyer Van Flein described as a potential way to make ballots "disappear."

Lt. Gov. Campbell said Roman's behavior raised questions. "You have an individual who tries to bring a backpack in, is told no, you have a person who tries to get on a network system, you have a person that uses a cell phone, text, iPhone, whatever he was using, is told not to and puts it under the table apparently and tries to use it. And then it runs out of battery and he actually wants us to charge it for him," he said. Murkowski campaign manager John Bitney said Roman's infractions were "unacceptable but relatively minor." He said he's told Roman he needs to follow the rules.

Bitney said Roman wasn't texting voter information; he was texting to the Murkowski campaign about the issue he was raising with elections officials. Bitney said Roman was raising a valid concern about how they validate signatures for people who voted questioned ballots outside of their home precincts. "Your signature verification is actually at the precinct where you should have been voting. ... He wanted to know how they validated the signatures."

Van Flein, who is also former Gov. Sarah Palin's personal attorney, based the complaint on the account of Miller campaign observers who were there at the time. Van Flein alleged Roman was texting while he was reviewing voter information and writing the information down when his iPhone battery died. Van Flein says the state then discovered voter identification information inside his observer handbook.

Bitney said Roman told him that he wasn't writing voting information in his observer handbook. He said he was making a note of the "ballot sequence number," to track where in the process the issue that he was raising with officials happened.

The state confiscated Roman's handbook. Lt. Gov. Campbell and the state elections chief said Monday they haven't verified what Roman wrote, but said he wasn't allowed to leave the room with it.

This isn't the first Miller complaint against a Murkowski election observer. Van Flein last week complained that Murkowski observer Bonnie Jack "used confidential voter information outside the voter observation confines and called a voter to resurrect a disqualified ballot." Alaska Division of Elections Director Fenumiai said Jack did not release confidential information.

Fenumiai said Jack noticed a ballot sent in from someone she knew that listed a residence different from what the state had on its voter registration rolls. Jack left the room and called the person to ask them about the address, Fenumiai said.

Libertarians reject Murkowski

The Alaska Libertarian Party will not consider allowing Lisa Murkowski on its ticket for the U.S. Senate race. The five-member executive committee of the party had an emergency meeting Sunday to discuss it and came to a unanimous decision.

Party Chairman Scott Kohlhaas said Murkowski or her campaign staffers never approached the party about running as a Libertarian but there had been so much speculation party officials decided to act. "Let's put this to rest; it's not happening," Kohlhaas said Monday.

Murkowski supporter Andrew Halcro had approached the Libertarians about Murkowski running on its ticket if she loses the Republican primary to Joe Miller. The Libertarians had indicated at that point they were open to considering the possibility. But Kohlhaas said Monday there is a list of issues on which Murkowski does not fit with the Libertarians. He said they include her 2008 vote in favor of the Bush administration's Wall Street bailout plan, her vote to authorize war with Iraq, and a vote she took in the state Legislature to deny Alaska Permanent Fund dividends to men who are not registered with the Selective Service.

There are no other third-party candidates in the U.S. Senate race. So the Libertarians' decision takes away Murkowski's only chance at making a third party run if she loses the Republican primary after the absentee and questioned votes are counted. Murkowski could run as an independent but only as a write-in candidate.

-- Sean Cockerham

PDF: How districts voted in Senate race
Photos: Primary vote counting