Write-In Ballot Count Begins In Alaska Senate Race

Alaska officials began counting the write-in votes Wednesday in the undecided Senate race. After incumbent Lisa Murkowski lost in the GOP primary, she ran as a write-in candidate, along with more than 100 other Alaskans. While Sarah Palin and other conservatives, including Jim DeMint, are backing Republican nominee Joe Miller, more votes were cast for write-in candidates than for Miller or the Democrat on Election Day. NPR's Martin Kaste updates host Melissa Block on the story.

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Election officials in Alaska today began counting by hand the 90,000 write-in ballots in that state's Senate race. Incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski ran as a write-in after losing the Republican primary this summer. In last week's election, write-in votes outnumbered those for either the Republican or the Democrat. And it's assumed that nearly all of them are votes for Murkowski.

But Republican nominee and Tea Party favorite Joe Miller says, not so fast. His campaign asked a federal judge to immediately stop the counting of write-in ballots. The judge has declined, however, saying there's no irreparable harm in counting them all now, and hearing Miller's legal challenge next week.

NPR's Martin Kaste has been watching the count, which is taking place in an old printing plant on the outskirts of Juneau. And Martin, tell us what's happened so far today.

MARTIN KASTE: Well, it's been a very deliberate and somewhat slow process of just going through all the ballots that were cast by Alaskans, separating out the ones that have write-in votes for Senate and then separating those into different piles. And that's where things get sticky.

What we have here is a situation where you have two counters counting and separating these ballots while two observers - one from each campaign - watch what they're doing and basically challenge almost every ballot that goes into that write-in pile.

Joe Miller's campaign's observers are challenging ballots based on misspellings, on cursive, on legibility, pretty much anything, really. And they challenge those ballots, and those get aside for further review by the director of elections here.

BLOCK: Well, further review, that's the real question, isn't it? Because there's been a big question of whether people would have to spell Murkowski letter for letter. What would be acceptable to determine voters' intent on that?

KASTE: Well, that's the real issue that's going to determine this election probably. The state of Alaska's position is that minor misspellings, as long as the voters' intent is clear, are acceptable. They've been saying that now for a number of weeks since Murkowski launched this effort as a write-in candidate. But the Miller campaign says no. If you look at Alaska state law, it says the write-in name should be written as they've been registered with the state and it has to be the same name, and they say what that means is perfect spelling.

So it's really a question of, is voter intent more important or is letter of the law more important? And the Miller campaign, they say it should be letter of the name, letter of the law.

BLOCK: What's the mood like in that room, Martin? Is it contentious? Does it feel really tense?

KASTE: It's not really tense. These are Alaskans. They have to get along. It's a small place when you look at the population. And, you know, one Miller volunteer told me, hey, you know, it's business. We all understand that. I don't think there's a lot of bad blood here. But it's very well organized. And it, so far, seems very cordial.

BLOCK: And some heavy election lawyers being brought in, though, for Lisa Murkowski?

KASTE: There are. In fact, Ben Ginsberg, the lawyer for Bush-Cheney in 2000 in Florida, has been circulating among the tables here. He works for the Murkowski campaign, and he's actually been quite complimentary of how well organized things are.

BLOCK: Well, 90,000 write-in ballots to go through, right? How long do you think that'll take?

KASTE: They're talking about this going through the end of the week, into the weekend possibly. But if the gap right now between write-in and Miller stays pretty wide, if Murkowski basically claims more than, say, 90-something percent of these write-in ballots, then I think we'd have a pretty clear outcome by the weekend.

BLOCK: And if not, then it gets into the whole question of those ballots where the intent is not so clear?

KASTE: Exactly. I think, really, the main issue right now is, does the federal court intervene here and require perfect spelling? If it does, things could get complicated. But as things stand right now, if the state's criteria are allowed to stand, I think the clarity will be coming pretty soon here.

BLOCK: Okay. That's NPR's Martin Kaste. He's been watching the ballot counting just outside Juneau, Alaska.

Martin, thanks so much.

KASTE: You're welcome.

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