With nearly 90 percent of write-in ballots counted, Lisa Murkowski's vote total closed to within 4,400 votes of Republican nominee, Joe Miller, as the incumbent U.S. Senator looks all but certain to retain her seat.
"Probably by the end of this weekend we could see Lisa's numbers exceed those of Joe's," said John Tracy, spokesman for the Murkowski campaign.
Elections officials working through the weekend on the laborious process of sorting, verifying and counting nearly 100,000 write-in ballots from around the state continued to add to Murkowski's totals, despite challenges from Miller observers monitoring the process.
As of the end of the day Saturday, more than 97 percent of the write-in ballots cast continued to be for Murkowski, according to Elections Director Gail Fenumiai.
Miller's observer teams are challenging some of those counted ballots, but as of Saturday they were challenging less than 8 percent of the write-in ballots.
Nearly all of the ballots Miller's observers are challenging are being counted in her totals, but the challenged ballots are being segregated in case a judge wants to review the state's determinations.
Murkowski is garnering votes at a pace which would give her a solid win even without the challenged ballots.
Kevin Sweeney, Murkowski's campaign manager, said the campaign's legal advisors are confident if the challenged ballots are reviewed by a judge they'll be counted in Murkowski's totals. What's more, among the ballots that were challenged and not counted by Fenumiai are likely additional Murkowski ballots that a judge would likely conclud should be counted for Murkowski as well, Sweeney said.
State Department of Law attorneys are on hand for the count and Fenumiai consults with them regularly.
The Miller campaign has filed suit in federal court challenging the state's count process, and is seeking to reject any ballot not spelled precisely correctly or with any other deviation from the standard.
On Saturday, the rate of ballots challenged by the Miller observers rose somewhat, but a Murkowski observer said it did not appear that Miller observers were making frivolous challenges, but instead batches of ballots were coming through with worse spelling or sloppier handwriting.
For Miller's vote total to exceed Murkowski's, 12 percent or more of her votes would have to be successfully challenged. Since the counting began Wednesday, the average challenge rate has been less than 10 percent a day. Challenges topped 12 percent for the first time Saturday.
Tracy said part of that increase appeared to stem from batches of ballots that were legitimately more difficult to read and may not have been a concerted effort to boost challenge numbers.
As of the end of the day Saturday, 90 percent of the write-in ballots had been counted, so it doesn't appear that even a dramatic changed in the rate of challenges could hold Murkowski's vote total below that of Miller.
In addition to Miller's federal lawsuit, he's also filed suit in state court seeking voter data which his spokesmen suggest may show evidence of fraud or voter intimidation.
Counting resumes today at the Elections Division's count site at the Alaska Litho building. Broadcast of the counting floor will continue on Gavel-to-Gavel through the end of the write-in process.
Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@ juneauempire.com.