ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A fierce ballot-by-ballot fight loomed Wednesday in the Alaska Senate race as lawyers and election monitors prepared to descend on the state capital and haggle over how many voters validly penned in the name of Sen. Lisa Murkowski in her historic write-in bid.
The overseer of Alaska's elections told The Associated Press that the counting of write-in ballots will begin Nov. 10, and a decision could come a few days later.
As of Wednesday, write-in votes had 41 percent; GOP nominee Miller had 34 percent; and Democrat Scott McAdams had 24 percent. The margin between write-ins and Miller was about 13,500 votes. At question now is how many of the voters who cast ballots for a write-in candidate did so for Murkowski, and just as important, penned in her name in a legally valid way.
The eventual outcome will be significant not only for Murkowski and Miller but also for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who emerged in the waning days of the campaign to rally support for Miller. A loss by Miller in Palin's home state could be seen as evidence of her having marginal impact on voters here amid the spotty record of the dozens of candidates she backed nationwide on Election Day.
As for the tally next week, ballot counters will use discretion in determining voter intent but all counters must agree on whether a ballot counts, said Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who oversees Alaska elections. If a disagreement emerges, a state attorney will be asked for an opinion.
Ballots will be separated into piles: those completed precisely, those counted based on workers' determination of voter intent, and those not counted based on unclear voter intent.
The last word may not come until well into December, since Dec. 4 is the deadline to request a recount; Dec. 9 is the deadline for an election contest to be filed in state court.
Miller's campaign manager, Robert Campbell, said Tuesday night that he expected "several teams," with lawyers, in Alaska soon to monitor the ballot count.
"I'm sure there's probably going to be two or three dozen votes for Spiderman," Campbell said.
"Candidates who mount a write-in campaign opt for an uphill battle. At this point, without a single write-in ballot counted, Lisa Murkowski has no claim on a victory," Miller said in a statement on his website Wednesday, adding later: "In short, this campaign is not over!"
Murkowski was confident, too.
"Thank you Alaska," Murkowski tweeted Wednesday. "It is clear that we made history together last night by putting Alaska first!"
In a statement, she said she's "poised to win and very confident" and that the numbers so far make clear "we made history."
"The story of my write-in campaign will be told and retold; it will change the definition of American politics," she said. "It newly redefines the where-with-all it takes to challenge the system and win. And it re-enforces what we all knew: in Alaska, anything is possible when you have a small group of people who are determined to change the world."
Throughout the campaign, she distributed blue wristbands bearing a darkened oval and her name. Voters could discreetly take the rubbery bangles with them into the polling booth. She also got supporters to come up with jingles and creative ways to help Alaskans remember how to cast their ballot. Her son wore a T-shirt Tuesday night with one of the gimmicks, a pictogram: the letters "MUR," a picture of a cow with a "K" stamped on it and a pair of skis. On the back, it read: "Too Legit to Quit!"
If Murkowski emerges with a win, it would be historic: No U.S. Senate candidate has won as a write-in since Strom Thurmond did so in 1954.
Apart from the write-in ballots, the latest tally didn't include potentially tens of thousands of absentee ballots that election officials don't plan to begin counting until Tuesday. Election workers plan to begin counting write-in ballots the following day, in Juneau, to avoid keeping citizens and candidates in the dark about whose names are on the ballots, Campbell said.
Palin, the former GOP vice presidential candidate and the tea party's unofficial leader, emerged in the race after a series of campaign hiccups by Miller, including a journalist detained by his security detail and records, released by court order, that showed he'd lied about improperly using government computers while a borough attorney in 2008.
In headlining a rally with Miller and taking to the Internet and cable, Palin sought to cast Miller as the target of media bias while pitching him as a conservative reformer up against the Establishment and an "out of touch liberal," Murkowski.