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Murkowski continues steady climb in Alaska Senate race

Patti Epler

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THREE-PART SERIES: How Lisa Murkowski turned the political tables on Joe Miller

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U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowki on Sunday continued to pick up more votes and her campaign officials say one more day ought to do the trick.

They hope to have a very good idea by the end of the day Monday whether she'll prevail in her historic election bid. That's when most of the rest of the absentee ballots will be counted and votes going to GOP contender Joe Miller will effectively stop coming in, they say.

Elections officials worked from about noon to 5 p.m. Sunday and counted another 4,963 write-in ballots. Murkowski picked up 4,733 of those, according to the state's tally.

At the end of the day, the number of votes awarded by the state Division of Elections to Murkowski stood at 85,756. Of those, 7,059 have been challenged by Miller and could end up as part of a legal filing, although he said Saturday if the numbers continue to add up for Murkowski he may not take the state to court.

Miller had 87,517 and Democrat Scott McAdams had 57,774; their totals haven't changed in recent days because the state has been counting only write-ins.

At this point, Murkowski is 1,751 votes behind Miller. There are about 8,600 absentees and as many as 15,000 write-ins left to count, according to Murkowski spokesman John Tracy. With 98 percent of the write-ins trending her way, Murkowski still seems on track to keep the Senate seat she has held for the past eight years.

"We're feeling great," Tracy said Sunday evening from Juneau, where he has been watching the count. "The state has reviewed these and, of course, we believe the state's standard for counting these ballots is transparent and a good process."

"We believe we'll end this race with a margin of victory of several thousand votes," he said.

Murkowski has been in the race of a lifetime since losing the GOP primary on Aug. 24 to Miller, a Fairbanks attorney. In mid-September she decided to mount a write-in effort, against the wishes of the Republican Party, after hundreds of Alaskans urged her to do it.

Tracy says virtually all of the remaining absentee ballots are expected to be counted by the end Monday. "His vote total and ours is going to go up, but then his total pretty much stops," Tracy said. "After tomorrow you'll get a real good idea of where everything stands."

After that, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 write-in ballots will be left, and so far 98 percent of those have been awarded to Murkowski. That is giving Murkowski's team confidence that her vote total will surpass Miller's by several thousand, perhaps by even more than there are challenged ballots, which would sidestep a court review.

In addition to the ballots that have unquestionably gone to Murkowski and the 7,000 or so ballots the state has given to Murkowski but Miller has challenged, there are 1,740 ballots the state has not counted but have been challenged, in large part by the Murkowski camp. Tracy said these include many ballots where Murkowski's name has been written in but the oval was not filled. But voter intent is clear, he said, and if any ballots end up in court, the Murkowski campaign wants a ruling on those "challenged not counted" ballots as well.

Those ballots were discovered during the counting process because elections workers are actually briefly looking at every ballot that was cast -- more than 200,000 in all. They then separate them into piles and those that are clearly write-ins are being closely scrutinized now.

Tracy estimated that elections officials have at least 28,000 ballots between absentees and write-ins "in their hands now" to be counted. It likely will take all day Monday to get through those, he said.

Sunday was actually kind of a slower day in terms of the counting. A live feed on 360north.org for much of the afternoon showed only a handful of observers walking through the rows of tables where election workers dealt ballots into piles.

Tracy noted that even the press took the day off. The only two media crews on hand were a writer from the Associated Press in Juneau and a team from Al Jazeera, he said.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.