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Hall's lead grows over write-in challenger in West Anchorage Assembly race

West Anchorage Assemblyman Ernie Hall's lead over write-ins in the April 2 city election widened from 93 votes to 318 Saturday when the city completed a computer count of about 1,100 absentee and questioned ballots in the district.

Write-in candidate Nick Moe waged a strong challenge to Hall in the last two weeks of the campaign.

The latest count: 4,296 for Hall, 3,978 for "Write-in Votes."

The clerk's office also completed a hand-count of ballots in the West Anchorage district Saturday that breaks down which write-ins count for Moe. But clerk Barbara Jones said a report on those results won't be available until early next week.

During the hand-count at City Hall, election workers separated all ballots with questions about whether they were valid.

Then Jones, flanked by attorneys from each campaign, came around and decided which votes would be counted. She excluded all write-in ballots in which the voter did not mark the oval next to the word "write-in," even if the voter wrote in Nick Moe's name.

Patrick Munson, Moe's attorney, challenged many of the clerk's decisions, including her decision not to count ballots with Moe's name written in, but no marks in the oval next to the name.

If the oval wasn't marked, the city's voter machine wouldn't recognize them as write-in votes either, so those votes did not show up as write-ins on the updated computer count Saturday.

The challenged ballots are set aside in case they're needed later. The Moe campaign has been asking supporters this week to donate money for a potential legal battle.

Munson said the question of whether votes should count in cases where people failed to mark the oval is at issue.

"It's very much alive in our minds," he said.

Neither the clerk's office nor the Moe campaign could say how many ballots were challenged during the hand-count.

"That's exactly what my team is doing right now," sorting out those numbers, Moe said Saturday night.

Hall said his campaign manager counted 180 challenges -- which would not be enough to overcome a 318-vote lead.

Regardless of the numbers, Moe said, "I'm incredibly pleased with what we were able to accomplish with a two-week write-in campaign. I think it sends a message city-wide that the public process should be respected."

Moe has said he jumped into the race because of Hall's decision to cut off public testimony while people were still waiting to speak on a rewrite of the city's labor laws last month. The rewrite strips power from city unions.

Hall, the Assembly's chairman, points out that a majority of the Assembly decided to end testimony, it wasn't just him.

"I'm glad I'm ahead," Hall said after the ballot counting Saturday. "I feel I've done a good job as an assemblyman."

He said the voter turnout was just 22 percent in West Anchorage. "It's heart-breaking," he said.

Jones and deputy city clerk Amanda Moser said the hand-counted votes in the West Anchorage district couldn't be tallied Saturday because they were counted by precinct, and divided into different categories such as questioned votes, absentee-in-person votes an absentee-by-mail votes.

The city attorney wrote detailed guidelines for what write-ins should count, based on city code and an Alaska Supreme Court decision in 2011 on what should count in Lisa Murkowski's successful write-in campaign for U.S. senator.

Lawyer Scott Kendall, who represented Murkowski then, is Hall's attorney now. He agreed nearly all of the clerk's decisions, he said part-way through the hand-count.

Munson said in Murkowski's race, ballots with unmarked ovals did not determine the outcome -- she had enough to win without them.

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at rshinohara@adn.com or 257-4340.