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Alaska: Former Senate candidate Joe Miller's write-in lawsuit cost state $100K

Patti Epler

The state spent about $100,000 to fight former U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller's legal challenge of incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski's successful write-in campaign, an assistant attorney general testified Tuesday.

The Senate State Affairs Committee of the Alaska Legislature is considering a bill that would make it clear that a voter's intent is to be followed if it can be determined. Senate Bill 31 clarifies the law to allow for abbreviations, misspellings or minor variations when a voter writes a candidate's name on a ballot.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat who chairs the state affairs committee, said the cost to the public of a serious challenge to a write-in campaign is one main reason to clarify the law.

Assistant attorney general Sarah Felix, one of a number of state attorneys involved in the Joe Miller case, told the committee that the legal wrangling, mainly in the state Superior Court, cost the state $85,000 to $100,000. The state is currently seeking to recover 20 percent of the cost -- about $17,000 -- from Miller, the maximum amount allowed under the law.

"A team of five attorneys working around the clock" made up the bulk of the cost of the lawsuit, Felix said. In addition to the money spent in Superior Court, where most of the legal arguments and briefings took place, the state also spent money to argue in the Alaska Supreme Court and in federal court as well.

Wielechowski, in an interview after the hearing, pointed out that the cost could have climbed into the hundreds of thousands of dollars if it had been appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Joe Thomas, Hollis French, Linda Menard and Wielechowski, is the first of several that are expected to be considered to address issues that arose in connection with the write-in campaign.

Miller won the Aug. 24 primary by about 2,000 votes but Murkowski came back in the Nov. 2 general election to win by more than 10,000 votes. Miller filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the hand-count of ballots and contesting thousands of ballots that had minor misspellings, bad penmanship, even a heart or a smiley face as the dot over an i.

The federal case was put on hold until the state courts had a chance to fully review the issue and then, after a state Superior Court judge and the Alaska Supreme Court had ruled against him, the case moved back to federal court where a federal judge dismissed it. Miller decided not to appeal although one suit brought by his supporters is still pending in federal court.

In addition to clarifying that a voter's intent is paramount in election challenges, lawmakers also are seeking to make sure that one person, the director of elections, has authority to look at handwritten ballots and decide what the voter intended. The Supreme Court in it's ruling had said that was preferable to having numerous people -- like an elections board -- who might have different views trying to maintain a consistent approach.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell also sent letters on Monday to the Legislature and the Attorney General's Office reminding them that his office is in the midst of a comprehensive review of the election process with an eye toward issues that were raised in the U.S. Senate race. At least a dozen issues and suggestions are under review including some that are already in proposed legislation, Treadwell said. Those include polling places procedures and poll worker training, distribution of write-in candidate lists, separating and counting write-in ballots, voter intent, requirements for write-in candidates, preventing felons from voting, ID requirements and ballot security, among others.

Treadwell said he expects much of the review to be done within 45 days, well before the scheduled end of the legislative session on April 17.

Meanwhile, SB 31 is moving through the state affairs committee without much objection. Wielechowski plans to give it another airing on Thursday and put it up for a vote by the committee.

"I think it's a good bill," he said Tuesday.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com