JUNEAU -- Almost 98 percent of write-in ballots opened Wednesday went to Lisa Murkowski on the first day of a count meant to decide Alaska's U.S. Senate race.
The Division of Elections accepted few of the objections made by Joe Miller's campaign to the ballots.
"So far things look really good for us," said Murkowski campaign manager Kevin Sweeney, who is in Juneau watching the write-in ballot count.
Elections workers opened the write-in ballots for almost 20 percent of the precincts in Alaska on Wednesday. The count of more than 90,000 write-ins will continue today and is expected to last five days.
The Miller campaign hopes to pull out a victory in the race with a lawsuit asking the federal courts to force the state to toss out misspelled ballots.
A federal judge denied Miller's request to immediately stop the count while the complaint is considered but said he will hear both sides next week.
Miller campaign spokesman Randy DeSoto said the votes challenged by Miller's ballot observers are being segregated in boxes and the lawsuit will determine whether they go to Murkowski in the end.
"That's what it's going to come down to," DeSoto said.
It appears as though Miller needs to keep about 12 percent of the write-ins from going for Murkowski. More than 89 percent of the write-ins counted Wednesday were unchallenged votes for Murkowski, and there is a possibility if that trend continues the lawsuit might not even matter.
Another 8.5 percent of the write-in votes opened Wednesday were challenged by Miller ballot observers but awarded to Murkowski. Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai made that call after looking over each of the challenged ballots.
Fenumiai said she accepted minor misspellings. "If I can pronounce the name by the way it's spelled, that's the standard I'm using," Fenumiai said.
Fenumiai overruled the Miller campaign's challenges on ballots like those spelled "Merkowski," "Murkowsky," and "Murcowski." They'll be reviewed in the expected recount, if not the courts.
Miller campaign observers successfully challenged only 1.44 percent of the 19,203 ballots counted on Wednesday. Fenumiai agreed with challenges by the Miller campaign of ballots like "McCosky," "Misskowski" and "Morcowski."
There were 164 write-in votes cast for people other than Murkowski. Two wrote in Joe Miller, despite the fact his name appeared on the ballot. One wrote the name of Democratic nominee Scott McAdams, who was also on the ballot.
There was a vote for Nancy Murkowski, Lisa's mother, and one for Frank Murkowski, her father.
Write-ins counted on Wednesday included those from precincts in Southeast Alaska, Fairbanks and the Mat-Su.
The count is going on in a warehouse-like building in Thane, outside downtown Juneau. It used to be occupied by a business called Alaska Litho but has stood empty and up for lease.
Thirty election workers - sitting in pairs at each of 15 tables - sorted through the ballots throughout the day, with an observer from each campaign watching. Elections Director Fenumiai went from table to table to rule on the challenged ballots, holding them up and peering at them through her glasses. Attorneys and other campaign observers also walked the room and often crowded behind Fenumiai to watch as she made her rulings.
Chip Thoma of Juneau, who was observing for the Alaska Democratic Party, said he was struck by the large percentage of write-ins that were perfectly cast for Murkowski, with the oval filled in and both her first and last names spelled correctly.
"She did an effective job," Thoma said of Murkowski's effort to get the word out on how to vote for her.
Some of the ballots challenged by Miller campaign observers Wednesday appeared to be correctly spelled "Lisa Murkowski," with the oval filled in as required. Fenumiai said she was seeing "a lot" of such apparently properly filled out write-in ballots being challenged.
Miller campaign observers said there was no intent for them to challenge properly cast ballots. They said their challenges were based on spelling, legibility, and if there might be something the voter added to the ballot line (like someone who writes in "Lisa Murkowski-Republican").
The legibility question is "certainly subjective," said Chip Gerhardt, an observer for the Miller campaign. Gerhardt is a Cincinnati, Ohio, lobbyist, Republican activist and county board of elections member. He said he flew to Alaska to volunteer for the write-in count after the National Republican Senatorial Committee asked him to help.
Gerhardt said his aim was to help make sure the ballots counted are those allowed under Alaska law.
The Miller campaign argues that state law clearly does not allow misspelled or otherwise wrongfully filled in write-in ballots to be counted. The campaign's lawyers say a "state bureaucrat" has no business judging whom voters intended to vote for.
"The point of this is to make sure the rules, and the law, are followed, so that the winner of this election will be elected fairly and, in the eyes of the public, legitimately," Miller lawyer Thomas Van Flein said in a statement sent out Wednesday.
Here's what the law says: "A vote for a write-in candidate, other than a write-in vote for governor and lieutenant governor, shall be counted if the oval is filled in for that candidate and if the name, as it appears on the write-in declaration of candidacy, of the candidate or the last name of the candidate is written in the space provided."
Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who oversees Alaska elections, said he was not convinced by Miller's lawsuit. "I have been consistent from the beginning in stating that minor misspellings of a candidate's name will be counted," Campbell said. "We have a number of instances where the Alaska courts have weighed in on this issue in favor of not disenfranchising voters."
But those court cases were not about write-in ballots. A court has never ruled on whether voters can misspell write-in ballots in Alaska and still have the vote count.
All sides agree this is uncharted territory. "The state of Alaska has never had an experience like this, with so many write-in votes," Campbell said.Sign up for breaking news alerts
PDF: Miller complaint
PDF: Miller motion for preliminary injunction
By SEAN COCKERHAM