Alaska elections director thrust into spotlight

Posted: Tuesday, November 16, 2010

JUNEAU - She presses a ballot close to her red glasses, pauses to scrutinize the botched spelling and declares in a singsong voice: "Murkowski."

"Challenge," comes the reflexive retort from an observer.

It's almost become routine, the scene played out thousands of times over as the director of Alaska's Division of Elections Gail Fenumiai decides whether to count a write-in vote for Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Fenumiai's decisions during the tedious process of hand-counting ballots could well determine whether Murkowski wins re-election and makes history as the first person since 1954 to win a write-in campaign for U.S. Senate.

The process is unprecedented in Alaska and comes at the end of a fiercely contested race between Murkowski and rival Joe Miller, who defeated Murkowski in the primary to win the Republican nomination. Democrat Scott McAdams has already conceded the race.

Yet despite all the attention, Fenumiai insists she feels no pressure.

She says she's just doing her job, trying her best to err on the side of voter intent and make sure no voters are disenfranchised.

Therein lies the basis for most of the challenges Fenumiai hears as she works her way among 15 plastic tables in the cavernous counting room on Juneau's outskirts, a scene that more closely resembles a library than a three-ring circus.

Miller's campaign claims the state is violating a law calling for write-in votes to have a marked ballot oval and either the last name of a candidate or the name of a candidate as it appears on their declaration of candidacy - in this case, Murkowski or Lisa Murkowski. The state points to case law in defending its practice of using discretion in determining voter intent. Miller has filed a federal lawsuit over the issue.

As the fifth day of the ballot hand count ended Sunday, Miller had 87,517 votes and Murkowski had 78,697.

More than 98,500 write-in ballots were cast and Murkowski has retained 89 percent of the write-in vote undisputedly.

Her campaign hoped she'd be able to overtake rival Joe Miller as early as Sunday, but counters got through less than 5,000 ballots - far fewer than they'd been generally averaging.

Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, a Republican, said he's proud of the process that's played out - and proud of Fenumiai, in whom he says he has the "utmost confidence."

"She takes it seriously," he said on a recent visit to the counting room. "She's proving she has what it takes."

Fenumiai, a 48-year-old mother of three and longtime state employee who likes reading and gardening, said she's hoping to get back into running once the election is over. Her husband is Samoan, thus the last name. She interviewed with then-Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell for the director's job in 2008, when she was working in administrative services in then-Gov. Sarah Palin's administration.

While there's been the rare recount, her work generally is far from glamorous - and far removed from the media glare. She usually deals with more mundane issues, such as a statewide voter registration system, voter assistance initiatives and, soon, redistricting. On primary and general election nights, she's on a phone or computer, behind a curtain at what's known as "election central," overseeing returns statewide.

But these days, she's working the warehouse-like room almost constantly, with two attorneys from the state nearby, floating among the tables and reading through ballots sorted by volunteers into boxes labeled No. 4, for ballots in which the name "appears to be a variation or misspelling of Murkowski or Lisa Murkowski."

Her charge from legal counsel: to count for Murkowski's tally names phonetic to Murkowski or with slight misspellings. One recent day, she gets a "Lisa Murcouski," "Lisa Murkowksi," "Lisa Murizowski" and "Lisa Mikawski." She counts the first two, which Miller's observer challenges, but not the final two, which the Murkowski observer challenges.

A judge can still toss the votes aside if he or she agrees that they don't meet the legal standard of votes for Murkowski. Murkowski's camp hopes to win enough votes outright to declare victory without having to worry about the disputed ballots.

This isn't the first write-in campaign in Alaska, but it's difficult to compare to any others. In this race, for example, voters couldn't make their choice using stickers, which they were allowed to do years ago, and candidates had to file to officially be recognized to run, something that wasn't required during the last major write-in run, Robin Taylor's gubernatorial bid, in 1998. Taylor finished a distant second that year to the winner, Democrat Tony Knowles.

"We're writing the book," Fenumiai said. "Obviously, one of this scale has never been done before."

Though the election ignited passions on both side - tempers flared in Anchorage between Murkowski and Miller supporters at election central on election night - there's been none of that during the count. While Miller's complained about the subjectivity and Fenumiai's decisions have frequently been challenged - her reading of ballots sometimes drawing frowns or incredulous glares - there've been few complaints about how things have run since the count began Wednesday.

"I think the process is working efficiently and professionally," said Chip Gerhardt, a Miller observer and attorney who was dispatched to the state by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "Civility has not tattered yet, and let's hope it doesn't."



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