ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Supreme Court late Wednesday blocked a lower court's order and ruled that voters at polling places may see a list of write-in candidates.
The ruling was good news for the campaign of incumbent U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. She was defeated in the Republican primary by tea party favorite Joe Miller and is mounting a write-in campaign. Former Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams is the Democratic candidate in the Senate race.
The high court ruled quickly after attorneys for the state Division of Elections petitioned for a review of a ruling issued earlier Wednesday by Anchorage Superior Court Judge Frank A. Pfiffner.
Pfiffner had granted a temporary restraining order stopping state elections officials from handing out write-in candidates' names at polling places. He said allowing them to do so would violate an administrative regulation and "smacks of electioneering at the polls."
The Supreme Court said the list of registered write-in candidates must be limited to names only, with no party affiliations or other information.
Besides issuing the emergency stay, the high court said it would expedite a state petition for review of the lower court ruling. It said responses from the state Democratic and Republican parties are due by Thursday afternoon on that point.
Early voting has begun, and thousands of votes have been cast.
Until the high court rules on the petition for review, the justices said all ballots cast by voters who are provided with the list of write-in candidates should be segregated from other ballots.
Murkowski's campaign was pleased with the high court's decision.
"This stay will ensure that Alaskans can continue to get the assistance they're entitled to under law," said her campaign manager, Kevin Sweeney.
Miller's campaign did not immediately respond to an e-mail from The Associated Press seeking comment.
The Alaska Democratic Party criticized the state Division of Elections' appeal to the high court.
"What the DOE has done continues to profoundly complicate this election," Party Chairwoman Patti Higgins said. "They are throwing Alaska votes into question by first, providing the list and second, appealing the temporary restraining order."
The regulation referred to in Pfiffner's ruling reads, "Information regarding a write-in candidate may not be discussed, exhibited, or provided at the polling place, or within 200 feet of any entrance to the polling place."
The judge said the Elections Division implemented a new policy despite "surreptitiously," seeking but not receiving required permission do so from the U.S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He enjoined the Elections Division from allowing election workers and polling place workers to post write-in candidates, to provide a list of write-in candidate names to voters or to verbally provide the names of write-in candidates to voters.
The Alaska Democratic Party sued Monday over the issue and the Republican Party of Alaska joined the lawsuit. The parties claimed the names handed out by election officials would skew voting in favor of write-in candidates.
The Murkowski campaign had intervened in the lawsuit, arguing that election officials have a broad mandate to assist voters and that the desire of voters for assistance in past court cases has trumped state rules.
At a hearing Monday, Assistant Attorney General Margaret Paton-Walsh said lists of write-in names were only intended as voter assistance and were not forms of advocacy. She said other states routinely post such information at polling places.
But in his 13-page decision, Pfiffner rejected state arguments.
"The Division's arguments that the knowledge that it has provided to voters about write-in candidates is not 'information' as that term is used in the regulation is simply wrong," he said.
The division, he said, has a duty to follow its own regulations and a last-minute interpretation was not entitled to deference. Even more shocking, he said, was the decision to move forward without obtaining required Justice Department approval.
The state justified its position by stating its requirement to aid a "qualified voter needing assistance in voting." Pfiffner said election workers were doing more than helping cast a ballot.
Voting assistance, he said, might mean helping a vision-impaired or an illiterate voter cast a ballot.
"It might include assistance in spelling a name," he said. "On the other hand, providing voters with a list of write-in candidates smacks of electioneering at the polls, particularly where this form of electioneering is specifically prohibited."
The Alaska Federation of Natives, a major backer of Murkowski, sought to intervene in the case Tuesday, claiming in a memo that Alaska Natives who may not be proficient in English would be disadvantaged if the write-in list were thrown out. The judge considered the argument and rejected it.