JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Misspellings and poor penmanship took center stage Wednesday in Alaska's contentious U.S. Senate race as teams of election workers began tallying more than 92,500 write-in ballots, with the two candidates' lawyers and observers intently watching the tedious process unfold.
Observers for GOP nominee Joe Miller - whose vote total trailed the number of write-in ballots cast in the Nov. 2 election by 11,333 as of Wednesday - were quick to challenge any ballot on which Sen. Lisa Murkowski's scribbled-in name was misspelled or letters were difficult to decipher.
Among the questions from Miller's team: Is that an "a" or an "o"?
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. He sought a hearing in that matter as early as Wednesday afternoon.
Officials expected the count to last several days, with their goal of having a clear winner emerge by the end of the count.
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 focused intently on educating voters on this point during her campaign, saying it was the sure way to have their votes counted.
Election officials, pointing to past case law, have said they plan to use discretion in determining voter intent on ballots where voters misspell Murkowski's name, with a final ruling coming from the director of the Division of Elections, Gail Fenumiai, with input from a state attorney.
Security guards escorted more than 60 boxes of ballots into the cavernous venue shortly before 9 a.m., when the count was scheduled to start. A guard sat or stood in front of those boxes, in an area cordoned off to observers and reporters. Among those on hand to observe for Murkowski was attorney Ben Ginsberg, part of the Bush-Cheney legal team during the 2000 Florida recount.
Challenges came early as Fenumiai made her away among the 15 plastic tables, sifting through ballots in boxes labeled No. 4, reserved for variations or misspellings of Murkowski's name.
At one table, early in the count, for each vote she determined for Murkowski, an observer for Miller's campaign challenged that finding.
In some cases, Fenumiai lifted up her glasses to scrutinize the ballots more closely. In a few others, she put them at the bottom of the box, saying she needed time to think about it.
An attorney for the state was at her side.
Tracy was optimistic that by the end of Wednesday "we'll have enough of a lead to be confident in the outcome," figuring Miller needed one in nine ballots thrown out to have a shot.
At some tables, boxes labeled No. 3, for which Murkowski or Lisa Murkowski was correctly spelled and there was no challenge, were brimming or nearly fully early in the day.
The ballot counters are longstanding, trained election workers from a variety of political background - Republican, Democrat, undeclared and nonpartisan, said Renee Limoge, a spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who oversees elections. http://apnews.myway.com//article/20101110/D9JDIG3O0.html