By BECKY BOHRER
November 11, 2010
It's not so much the work - tedious, rote, but satisfying civic duty. It's the media attention surrounding the race: a rematch of the GOP primary, featuring tea party favorite Joe Miller and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who ran an outsider write-in campaign in a bid to keep her job.
Still, she sees the hoopla as a positive thing: "We run really clean elections," said the 57-year-old retired state worker, TV cameras and a row of reporters behind her.
She also noted that Alaska elections lack the circus-like atmosphere that surrounded the 2000 Florida presidential recount.
While write-ins led Miller after thousands of absentee and early cast votes were tallied Tuesday, it's only now becoming clear who those votes were for. Murkowski was one of 160 write-in candidates, a roster bloated amid conservative calls to try to disrupt her campaign in the fiercely contested race's final days.
Alaska Elections Division Director Gail Fenumiai, right, and Assistant Attorney General Sarah Felix look over a ballot Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010, in Juneau, Alaska. Election officials planned to begin poring over more than 92,500 write-in ballots in the Alaska Senate race on Wednesday, in spite of a federal lawsuit that's challenging the way the count was to be conducted. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
The laborious tallying process bore some resemblance to the 2000 Florida presidential recount, though a decade later, it was misspellings and bad penmanship — not hanging chads — that took center stage in Juneau.
Workers, tasked with sorting through more than 92,500 write-in ballots, robotically cast aside ballots with clearly marked choices and paused to scrutinize others with mangled or odd spellings — singling those out for final judgment from the director of the state Division of Elections, Gail Fenumiai.
There were plenty of variations of Murkowski's last name, Murkowsi, Murkowsky, Muckowski; the most common among them were "Merkowski" or "Murcowski." There were even some Lizas.
"It's not labor intensive; it's a little tedious, but it's the process" said ballot counter Dotty Brevik, 61, a retired fire department employee. She added: "I'm glad everyone's watching. It's good for the system, and I'm glad to be a part of it."
It played out in a cavernous building on the outskirts of the city, with the two candidates' lawyers and observers carefully watching it unfold.
Observers for Miller - whose vote total trailed the number of write-in ballots cast in the Nov. 2 election by 10,799 as of Wednesday - were quick to challenge virtually any ballot on which Murkowski's scribbled-in name was misspelled or letters were difficult to decipher. ecipher.
The atmosphere remained calm, with election workers and observers going about their work studiously - getting the routine of scanning each ballot and declaring, "Challenge" or "Leave" downpat — as it aired for a statewide audience.
"This is Juneau, Alaska. This isn't Caracas," said John Tiemessen, a Miller attorney. "I would've been shocked if there would've been anything interesting" broadcast from this.
Ballots with misspellings or variations of Murkowski's name were set in boxes labed No. 4, which needed a ruling from director of the Division of Elections, Gail Fenumiai. The final decision rests with Fenumiai, who had hoped to finish the count Friday but expressed doubts about that Wednesday, given the plodding pace.
Fenumiai was generous in crediting misspellings to Murkowski's tally, drawing objections from Miller observers. She said if the name written was phonetically similar to Murkowski's, it would count.
Murkowski spokesman John Tracy suggested some of the challenges were frivolous. "This isn't supposed to be a penmanship test," he said.
The count began as planned in spite of a lawsuit filed Tuesday by Miller, seeking to prevent the state from using discretion in determining voter intent on individual ballots. Miller's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, said he wants to ensure a fair count.
A judge on Wednesday refused to stop the count while Miller's complaint is being considered and set briefing schedules for next week.
Miller maintains election law must be upheld in scrutinizing the ballots, meaning the ballots must have the oval filled in and either "Murkowski" or "Lisa Murkowski" written next to it to be a valid vote for Murkowski.
Murkowski, hoping to make history as the first U.S. Senate candidate since 1954 to win as a write-in, focused intently on educating voters on this point during her campaign, saying it was the sure way to have their votes counted. She ran an ad riffing on a spelling bee, closed many of her rallying speeches by leading the crowds in spelling her last name — "MUR-KOW-SKI" — and handed out rubbery wristbands featuring a filled in oval and her name that voters were allowed to bring, discreetly, into the polling booth with them.
But election officials pointed to past case law in declaring their plans to use discretion in determining voter intent on ballots where voters misspell Murkowski's name, with a ruling coming from Fenumiai, with input from a state attorney. Officials have said they do not want to disenfranchise anyone.
The recourse for challenges is court, with the deadline to file a case next month.
Challenges came early as Fenumiai made her away among the 15 plastic tables, where 30 trained ballot workers — most women, of middle age or older, of a variety of political backgrounds — sifted through ballots in boxes labeled No. 4.
At one table, early in the count, for each vote she determined for Murkowski, an observer for Miller's campaign challenged that finding.
"We're applying the statutory definition and going with that," said another Miller observer, AJ Ferate, of Oklahoma City.
In some cases, Fenumiai lifted up her glasses to scrutinize the ballots more closely. In a few others, she put ballots at the bottom of the box, saying she needed time to think about it.
An attorney for the state was at her side.
It wasn't only Miller's camp that raised objections. Fenumiai's call to disallow "Lisa Murkaska" drew a challenge from one of Murkowski's attorneys.
Tracy was optimistic that the race will end in their favor, figuring Miller needed one in nine ballots thrown out to have a shot.
Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto said the campaign remained cautiously optimistic and was determined to see the counting process through.
Aside from ballots for Murkowski, contested or not, there also were ballots without an oval marked, and others with votes for other write-in candidates. There also were voters who favored "Snoopy" and "Elmo," and at least one wrote in: "NONE OF THE ABOVE."
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