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Taking a long look at ballots

| November 11, 2010 8:00 PM

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - 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 to spell "Murkowski."

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 election, voters cast several thousand more ballots for write-in candidates than they did for Miller, and it's those write-in ballots that are now in question in the count. Election officials had hoped to finish by Friday, but Wednesday's plodding pace indicated it may take longer.

An early tally of 19,203 ballots Wednesday showed Murkowski winning 89 percent of the write-in vote without dispute. Another 8.5 percent of ballots were counted for her but contested. There were two write-in votes for "Joe Miller."

The other candidate in the three-way race, Democrat Scott McAdams, has conceded.

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.

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 10,799 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.

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.

Fenumiai was generous in crediting misspellings to Murkowski's tally, drawing objections from Miller observers. She said if the name written was phonetically similar to Murkowski's, it would count.

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 ballots. Miller's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, said he wants to ensure a fair count.

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