Fate Of Alaska Sen. Stevens Remains Uncertain

At this point Republican incumbent Ted Stevens is behind Democratic challenger Mark Begich by just over a thousand votes. Even if he's able to pull off a victory, Stevens still faces an expulsion vote in the Senate. His Republican colleagues put off a preliminary step toward one Tuesday — waiting to see what happens in Alaska.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

I'm Alex Cohen. It's been exactly two weeks since election day, and the fate of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens remains uncertain. Before the election, Stevens was convicted of felony ethics violations. Even so, the incumbent managed to pull in enough votes to make the race against Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich really close. In fact, they are still counting ballots in Alaska.

NPR's Martin Kaste joins us now. And, Martin, where does the ballot count stand now, and when do you think we'll actually have a final result?

MARTIN KASTE: Well, right now, there's a mere 1,022 ballots separating Begich from Stevens, and Begich has the edge there. Basically, they've counted ballots from everywhere in Alaska, but right now, they're counting some other ballots that come under the rubric of absentee or early voting, some questioned ballots. They've been doing that for the last couple of weeks.

And the big - the last big group of ballots will be counted today by the end of business in Alaska, which is about nine p.m. Eastern. And that'll be about 24,000 ballots counted today, and if there's a strong direction one way or the other in that final group of ballots, I think we'll have a result, a clear result, but it would have to be a real edge for one of the two men.

COHEN: I know Alaska's a big state, but two weeks, why has it taken so long?

KASTE: Absentee ballots. It's funny. In this election, right after the vote, there was a lot of speculation on the Internet. Some liberal blogs were wondering whether there had been some shenanigans in Alaska because it looked like the voter turnout was so low, lower than '04, which would be bizarre in a state that had a favorite daughter on one of the presidential tickets. Why would the turnout be so low?

But it turns out that people cared so much about this election that record numbers were voting absentee or voting early. They also had liberalized rules for both those categories of ballots. They were just - they were so set on getting their ballots in on this particular election that they were voting early, and that just changed the whole counting dynamic.

And they allow extra time for ballots in the mail to arrive in Alaska, given some of the distances involved. So, they have just been slowly - these things have just been coming in and coming in, and they've been - that voter turnout is actually, now, looks like it's record breaking. And that's - it's just taken a lot longer to count all those ballots.

COHEN: Originally, Ted Stevens was supposed to face another vote today, one by the Senate Republican Conference. It was going to determine whether or not he should be kicked out of the Senate. What's the latest word on that?

KASTE: Looks like they are going to wait to see if the whole thing is a moot point. The Republican caucus there in the Senate, or the Republican Conference, as they call it, they were going to vote, as you say, but now, Senator Jim DeMint from South Carolina says he wants to hold off. He thinks that there is - there are enough votes in the Republican Conference to kick Senator Stevens out, but they're going to wait until Thursday to see if there's some conclusive evidence that this election is going one way or the other today.

COHEN: Martin, there's a little bit of interesting timing in all of this. Today of all days is Ted Stevens's 85th birthday. So if, for any reason, if not a career in the Senate, what might be next for him?

KASTE: Well, I mean, this is - even his political rivals, the Democrats and others in Alaska, don't want to see his career end this way. They certainly don't relish the thought. I mean, he is just this landmark in Alaska politics. At 85, a convicted felon, if that sticks, I really - I don't see much of a career for him after this, but we'll see what happens in this count.

COHEN: NPR's Martin Kaste, thanks so much.

KASTE: You're welcome.

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