The Lisa Murkowski wristbands seem to have worked, as early numbers Wednesday from the Election Division teams counting write-in ballots for her U.S. Senate seat show excellent spelling by Murkowski supporters.
Despite aggressive challenging from Republican nominee Joe Miller, it looks like Alaskans know how to spell the name of the woman who has been its senator for eight years, and whose father was a previous senator and governor.
So far, 97 percent of the ballots appear to be for Murkowski, according to the Elections Division's first of what may be five days of counting Wednesday.
The Murkowski campaign spent the days leading up the election pounding the dual message of fill-in the oval on the ballot and spell the name. Along with wristbands there were T-shirts, wallet cards and anything else on which she could print her name.
Miller observers fought back aggressively Wednesday, challenging all ballots with questionable spellings, including "Lesa" Murkowski, Lisa "Murkoski," and a host of other variations.
"We've got a bit of a spelling bee going on here," said Fox News reporter Dan Springer, doing a stand-up report while 15 teams of counters and observers haggled over stacks of ballots in the background.
That spelling bee may be Miller laying the ground work for a post-election legal challenge, but Wednesday in Anchorage a federal judged delayed hearing Miller's appeal until after the count was done. Miller is demanding the federal court force Alaska to use a more narrow definition of what write-in ballots should be counted.
"They're challenging everything," said Murkowski observer Duff Mitchell. "They're really going after the old people who scribble."
Some Miller observers were challenging those who wrote in "Murkowski, Lisa," because that's not precisely how she filed her declaration of write-in candidacy form, said Murkowski observer Joe Geldhoff.
After talking with a Miller election law attorney, all but the most passionate Miller observers have stopped challenging that particular variation, he said.
Even with those challenges, however, only about 10 percent of the ballots were called into question. And Elections Director Gail Fenumiai wound up approving most of those.
"They spent the day trying to throw out the votes of as many Alaskans as possible," said Murkowski spokesman John Tracy.
With election day producing 10,800 more votes write-in votes than Miller received, the tea party-backed Republican nominee needs to be able to convince Fenumiai to reject nearly 13 percent of the ballots to get Murkowski's tally below Miller's. Wednesday, she was rejecting less than 3 percent.
If the challenged ballots wind up being rejected Miller still has a chance to exceed Murkowski's total, said Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto.
"It puts us in the ballpark," he said.
The counting process, done at the old Alaska Litho building on Thane Road, was going painstakingly slowly, however. Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who oversees elections, said he'd hoped to be completed in three days but that it would now likely take five days.
"It doesn't matter how long it takes, what matters is that we get it right," Campbell said.
The ballots that were challenged by Miller observers, even those approved by Fenumiai, were being segregated so they can be removed from the totals if a judge agrees with Miller that state law requires perfect spelling.
DeSoto said it did not matter that the federal judge rejected Miller's attempt to stop the state's counting method because Elections Division is handling the ballots correctly.
"As long as the ballots are being segregated and we have an observer here there would not be any harm in going forward," he said.
Campbell said the state's goal is to see that voters are not disenfranchised, and he expected the state to prevail in any court challenge.
"Time and again the Alaska courts have erred on the side of enfranchising voters, and I would be shocked if that changed," he said.
One caution for Murkowski: Wednesday's first-to-be-counted ballots included batches from Ketchikan and Juneau, two communities where she and her family are well-known and where residents can be expected to know how to spell "Murkowski," if anyone in the state does.
One big of good news for Miller's campaign that came Wednesday was an additional batch of absentee votes were counted that moved him 500 votes to Murkowski's write-in total. That may be his last big gain, however, as most yet-to be counted ballots appear to come from communities that strongly supported Murkowski.
Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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