Image: Watching the count in Alaska Senate race
MICHAEL PENN  /  AP
Observer Joe Geldhof, left, for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and observer Ivy Frye, for GOP nominee Joe Miller, closely watch the last of the write-in ballots during counting in Juneau, Alaska, on Monday.
By
updated 11/16/2010 9:24:37 PM ET 2010-11-17T02:24:37

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski widened her lead over GOP rival Joe Miller to 10,400 votes in Alaska's Senate race and is returning to the state, where she could declare victory as early as Wednesday.

The vote tally includes ballots challenged by Miller observers but credited to her total. However, she now has more than 2,200 more undisputed votes than Miller.

At this point, Murkowski has 92,715 unchallenged votes, along with 8,153 challenged votes for a total of 100,868. Miller has 90,468 total.

Miller has said that if the math doesn't work in his favor, he won't fight. Murkowski's campaign manager says that's the point this has come to, and he hopes Miller keeps his word.

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But Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto says the campaign is interested in a recount and maintaining its legal fight over election protocol if the vote is close.

Asked if 2,000 votes is close, he said he believed so.

As many as 600 more ballots from overseas and military addresses could be submitted by a Wednesday deadline. The state plans to count those by Friday.

Murkowski is seeking to make history and win redemption through the write-in campaign she mounted after losing her party primary to Miller. No U.S. Senate candidate has won a write-in bid since 1954.

Murkowski has consistently been getting about 89 percent of the write-in vote as ballots are counted. If the trend holds, she could pull ahead of Miller by fewer than 400 votes.

Contested ballots
Miller has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have the state follow election law that calls for write-in ballots to have the oval filled in and the last name of the candidate or the name as it appears on the declaration of candidacy. In the Senate race, it would be Murkowski or Lisa Murkowski.

The state has been using discretion in determining voter intent, allowing minor misspellings and pointing to prior case law as the basis for the move.

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Miller has said he won't press on if the math doesn't work in his favor. But he also has said he believes the letter of the law should be met and that he's willing to fight on if the contested votes would make the difference between his winning or losing.

Murkowski's camp claims he is seeking to disenfranchise thousands of voters who made an effort to write in her name but had trouble doing so.

About 8 percent of the write-in votes the state has counted toward Murkowski's tally have been challenged by Miller observers, for things such as misspellings, legibility issues, extra words or oddly filled-in ovals. That percentage represents 7,549 votes.

Some of those ballots included mangled or hard-to-read lettering but also entries like "Murkowski, Lisa," and "Lisa Murkowski Republican."

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Another 2 percent has been challenged and not counted by the state. Many of these ballots had Murkowski's name written in, but the oval wasn't filled in. Murkowski observers objected to the decision.

Just as Miller believes he can make a case in court for getting contested ballots tossed, Murkowski's campaign believes it can persuade a judge that a voter who wrote in Murkowski's name — but didn't fill in the oval — meant to vote for her and should have their ballot counted.

"The question is whether Joe Miller wants to delay the inevitable and go through a lengthy court process," Murkowski campaign manager Kevin Sweeney said. "We just hope he is reasonable."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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