Image: Checking write-in ballots in Alaska
Rick Bowmer  /  AP
Alaska Elections Division Director Gail Fenumiai, right, and Assistant Attorney General Sarah Felix look over a ballot on Wednesday in Juneau, Alaska.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/10/2010 9:56:22 PM ET 2010-11-11T02:56:22

Alaska election officials began counting more than 92,500 write-in ballots Wednesday in a Senate race that may hinge on voters' penmanship and their ability — or lack of — to spell "Murkowski" on their write-in ballots.

Murkowsi. Murkowsky. Even, possibly, Muckowski. All were variations of Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski's name noted by ballot counters and immediately challenged by observers for Joe Miller, her GOP rival in the still-unsettled Nov. 2 race.

Murkowski ran as a write-in candidate after losing Alaska's GOP primary to Miller, a tea party favorite, in August. In the Nov. 2 election, voters cast several thousand more ballots for write-in candidates than they did for Miller, and it's those ballots that are now in question.

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A tally of 19,203 ballots on Wednesday showed Murkowski winning 89 percent of the write-in vote without dispute and another 8.4 percent of ballots were counted for her but contested. There was one write-in vote for "Joe Miller." If the pattern continued, Murkowski could win the election. Miller has 81,195 votes in the unofficial results. Democrat Scott McAdams is a distant third at 53,950.

The laborious tallying process bore some resemblance to the 2000 Florida presidential recount, though a decade later, it was misspellings and bad penmanship — not hanging chads — that took center stage in Juneau.

Alaska's 2010 General Election results

The process played out in a cavernous building on the outskirts of the city, with the two candidates' lawyers and observers carefully watching it unfold.

Observers for Miller — whose vote total trailed the number of write-in ballots cast in the Nov. 2 election by 11,333 as of Wednesday — were quick to challenge virtually any ballot on which Murkowski's scribbled-in name was misspelled or letters were difficult to decipher.

While the scene that unfolded Wednesday had all the makings of the Florida recount, it had none of the circus-like atmosphere. Election workers and observers went about their work studiously as it was aired for a statewide audience, with the noise barely raising above a din at times in the cavernous room while they were sorting.

"This is Juneau, Alaska. This isn't Caracas," said John Tiemessen, a Miller attorney. "I would've been shocked if there would've been anything interesting" broadcast from this.

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Workers and observers came across a range of ballots, with plenty of variations on Murkowski's last name; common misspellings were "Merkowski," or "Murcowski." There even were some Lizas.

"Oh, misspelled. They forgot the 'k,'" one worker said as she put the ballot in box No. 4, which was reserved for variations or misspellings of Murkowski's name that needed a ruling from director of the Division of Elections, Gail Fenumiai. The final decision rests with Fenumiai, who had hoped to finish the count Friday but expressed doubts about that Wednesday, given the plodding pace.

Fenumiai was generous in crediting misspellings to Murkowski's tally, drawing objections from Miller observers.

Murkowski spokesman John Tracy suggested some of the challenges were frivolous. "This isn't supposed to be a penmanship test," he said.

The count began as planned in spite of a lawsuit filed Tuesday by Miller, seeking to prevent the state from using discretion in determining voter intent on individual ballots. Miller's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, said he wants to ensure a fair count.

A judge on Wednesday refused to stop the count while Miller's complaint is being considered and set briefing schedules for next week.

Miller maintains election law must be upheld in scrutinizing the ballots, meaning the ballots must have the oval filled in and either "Murkowski" or "Lisa Murkowski" written next to it to be a valid vote for Murkowski.

Image: Write-in ballot in Alaska
Rick Bowmer  /  AP
A write-in ballot is shown Wednesday in Juneau, Alaska.

Miller's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, had said the campaign maintains that every valid, lawful vote should be counted, but that the state should follow its election laws.

"The statute does not allow for the election board to weigh 'voter intent,' 'voter feelings,' or 'voter hopes,'" Van Flein wrote in a letter to Fenumiai, the Daily News report said.

In a statement on his website, Miller said the state elections division "substituted its own standards" and described the "last-minute change" as "troubling." The site also said the rules shouldn't be changed "after the votes have been cast."

Murkowski, hoping to make history as the first U.S. Senate candidate since 1954 to win as a write-in, focused intently on educating voters on this point during her campaign, saying it was the sure way to have their votes counted. She ran an ad riffing on a spelling bee, closed many of her rallying speeches by leading the crowds in spelling her last name — "MUR-KOW-SKI" — and handed out rubbery wristbands featuring a filled in oval and her name that voters were allowed to bring, discreetly, into the polling booth with them.

But election officials pointed to past case law in declaring their plans to use discretion in determining voter intent on ballots where voters misspell Murkowski's name, with a ruling coming from Fenumiai, with input from a state attorney. Officials have said they do not want to disenfranchise anyone.

"The courts have been very clear for the last 25 years that voter intent is important," Gov. Craig Campbell Campbell, a Republican and the overseer of state elections, said in a radio interview this week, the Alaska Daily News reported. "You do not want to disenfranchise voters over a technicality."

The recourse for challenges is court, with the deadline to file a case next month.

Security guards escorted more than 60 boxes of ballots into the venue shortly before 9 a.m., when the count was scheduled to start. A guard sat or stood in front of those boxes, in an area cordoned off to observers and reporters. Among those on hand to observe for Murkowski was attorney Ben Ginsberg, part of the Bush-Cheney legal team during the 2000 Florida recount.

Challenges came early as Fenumiai made her away among the 15 plastic tables, where 30 trained ballot workers — most women, of middle age or older, of a variety of political backgrounds — sifted through ballots in boxes labeled No. 4.

At one table, early in the count, for each vote she determined for Murkowski, an observer for Miller's campaign challenged that finding.

"We're applying the statutory definition and going with that," said another Miller observer, AJ Ferate, of Oklahoma City.

In some cases, Fenumiai lifted up her glasses to scrutinize the ballots more closely. In a few others, she put ballots at the bottom of the box, saying she needed time to think about it.

An attorney for the state was at her side.

It wasn't only Miller's camp that raised objections. Fenumiai's call to disallow "Lisa Murkaska" drew a challenge from one of Murkowski's attorneys.

Tracy was optimistic that by the end of Wednesday "we'll have enough of a lead to be confident in the outcome," figuring Miller needed one in nine ballots thrown out to have a shot.

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Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto said the campaign remained cautiously optimistic and was determined to see the counting process through.

Tiemessen, who has been monitoring the ballot count in Juneau, said trying to figure out voter intent was "troubling."

"We have seen first hand ballots 'put on hold' because the state employee could not figure out voter intent, but thought if they looked at the same ballot tomorrow or the next day, the ballot might be easier to understand," he said. "This is precisely the problem with having a state bureaucrat guess what a voter supposedly meant. In reality, the state bureaucrat is casting that vote. It is an issue the court needs to address."

Murkowski's campaign believes most of those votes are for her. "At the end of the first count of ballots, I am confident heading into tomorrow that I will maintain a sufficient margin for victory," she said in a Twitter post on Tuesday.

Aside from ballots for Murkowski, contested or not, there also were ballots without an oval marked, and others with votes for other write-in candidates. There also were voters who favored "Snoopy" and "Elmo," and at least one wrote in: "NONE OF THE ABOVE."

Msnbc.com staff contributed to this report from The Associated Press.

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