In Alaska, Ballot Counters Spell-Check 'Murkowski'

NPR's Martin Kaste spent most of this week in an old printing plant on the outskirts of Juneau, Alaska, where he has watched the hand count of write-in ballots in the U.S. Senate race. After Sen. Lisa Murkowski was defeated by Tea Party favorite Joe Miller in the GOP primary, she (and more than 100 others) jumped in the general election as a write-in candidate.

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In Alaska, the Tea Party-backed Senate candidate Joe Miller is still hoping to win a seat in the next Congress. This week, Mr. Miller filed suit in federal court to challenge the legitimacy of Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski's write-in votes.

Miss Murkowski may be close to beating the odds with her long-shot campaign for re-election as a write-in candidate. More than 92,000 Alaskans cast write-in votes for that Senate race and state election officials are now sorting through each one of them. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

KASTE: Write-in votes are usually ignored. Believe it or not, election officials rarely take note of the fact that you wrote in Mickey Mouse for mayor.�But when a write-in candidate actually stands a chance of winning -well, that means work.

(Soundbite of metal scraping)

KASTE: On Wednesday, security guards wheeled the cartons and cartons of ballots into the Old Alaska Litho Building on the outskirts of Juneau. And volunteers have been counting every day since. This is Chip Gerhardt's first time visiting Alaska.

Mr. CHIP GERHARDT (Attorney): It's taunting(ph) because I can look out the windows and see those snow-capped mountains, and yet I'm stuck inside this building.

KASTE: Gerhardt, a lawyer from Ohio, is an observer for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. There are also dozens of observers for the two campaigns - for Murkowski's and for that of Joe Miller, the Tea Partier who beat Murkowski in the primary.�And Miller's observers have been busy.

Unidentified Woman #1: Murkowski?

Unidentified Woman #2: Challenge.

Unidentified Woman #1: Murkowski?

Unidentified Woman #2: Challenge.

KASTE: Miller's campaign is challenging any Murkowski vote it can, usually on the grounds of a misspelling. Miller says write-ins should be spelled perfectly. But the state is allowing minor misspellings, while at the same time setting those ballots aside in case the issue ends up in court. All the challenges have made the process drag on longer than expected.

Ms. BONNIE JACK (Murkowski Observer): Everybody's legs hurt.�

KASTE: Bonnie Jack came down from Anchorage to be an observer for Murkowski.

Ms. JACK: But overall, I think everybody's getting along.�I haven't seen a whole lot of ugliness.

KASTE: Cordial as the process has been, some people are still fascinated by it. There's a live TV feed, and even some sight-seers who wander in from town. Sometimes there's an actual sight to see.

Mr. FLOYD BROWN: Good afternoon. My name is Floyd Brown and I'm a volunteer strategist with the Miller campaign.

KASTE: Political junkies might recognize Brown's name in connection with the Willie Horton ad of 1988.�Now he's turned up in Alaska. And on Thursday he called a news conference right there by the ballot-counting tables to raise the alarm over election fraud.

Mr. BROWN: We are not going to be cowed by the intimidation of the people that have been running this state for decades, running it as a personal fiefdom.

KASTE: Brown didn't offer much evidence of fraud, but his words resonate for many of Miller's supporters.�They see Miller as the underdog in this race. Senator Murkowski had solid business support, and Miller's people believe she's now getting state help in the ballot count. Still, Miller loyalist Greg Pugh admits to a certain admiration for the thousands of perfectly-spelled Murkowski votes that he's observed.

Mr. GREG PUGH (Miller Observer): It's amazing.

KASTE: Ninety percent of Murkowski's votes have gone unchallenged, something Pugh sees as a tribute to Alaska penmanship.

Mr. PUGH: I don't think you would�have another state that would be doing this as neat as we've seen it.

KASTE: Even if his candidate ends up losing, Pugh is still proud of Alaska.

Martin Kaste, NPR news.

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