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Senate vacancy initiative still not settled

Posted: Sunday, September 26, 2004

Sponsors of a ballot initiative to fill U.S. Senate vacancies by election rather than gubernatorial appointment say they may be headed back to court over what they call biased ballot language approved by Lt. Gov. Loren Leman.

Leman, who heads the state Division of Elections, denied the charges that the summary of the initiative that will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot is impartial.

The initiative was spearheaded by Democrats last year in response to Gov. Frank Murkowski's appointment of his daughter Lisa Murkowski to fill his former seat in the U.S. Senate.

State Rep. Eric Croft of Anchorage, one of three Democratic state lawmakers who co-sponsored the initiative, said the ballot language overstates the amount of time a Senate seat would remain vacant if voters approve the initiative.

"Under this measure a vacated seat would remain vacant for three to five months, leaving Alaska without full representation in the Senate," the ballot language reads.

Croft said in a letter to Leman that the language "belongs, if at all, in the statement of opposition to the initiative." He said the initiative stipulates that a vacancy would trigger a special election in 60 to 90 days.

"These are the same rules we have used to fill U.S. House vacancies since statehood," the letter read.

But Leman said Friday that on top of the 60 to 90 days the governor has to call a special election, the Division of Elections needs 21 days to receive questioned ballots and count them. And a close election could result in a recount that could last as long as a month, Leman said.

He also denied Crofts charges that he was persuaded to slant the initiative language because of political pressure.

"There has never been anyone in this administration that has applied pressure to me," Leman said. "For Rep. Croft to say that is just bizarre. I operate on what I believe is factual."

Croft said Friday that he is considering suing the state over the ballot language. It wouldnt be the first time the initiative sponsors sued the state.

In 2003, the initiative group known as Trust the People sued the state after Leman denied initiative signature booklets. His decision was based on a recommendation from Alaska Attorney General Greg Renkes that said the initiative violated the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But an Anchorage Superior Court agreed with the initiative sponsors and ordered Leman to distribute the booklets.

In 2004, the Republican majority in the Legislature passed a bill that was similar to the initiative in an attempt to keep it off the ballot. The State Supreme Court, however, ruled that the bill differed from the proposed initiative and ordered Leman to put it on the ballot.

"We may be forced for a third time to get a court order showing he's acting illegally," Croft said Friday.

He said that with multiple court battles, the sponsors are running out of money to hire lawyers.

"I'm an attorney and I may just have to handle this myself," Croft said.

Leman said overseas absentee ballots have been printed and distributed but he was uncertain if the normal polling ballots have been printed.

• Timothy Inklebarger can be reached

at timothy.inklebarger@juneauempire.com.



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