All Alaskan election officials could tell us on the day after the voting was that the write-ins beat the regulars. Voters up there apparently won't know for weeks, maybe months, who it was they sent to the U.S. Senate. Not just because the state's western extremities extend into an Asian time zone, but also because the votes for the apparent winner will have to be counted by hand. And that won't start until Nov. 10.
When the outcome finally is known it’s likely to add yet another shade of weird to Alaska’s political aurora borealis. Lisa Murkowski seems situated to become only the second person ever to win a US Senate seat as a write-in. (The other was segregationist Strom Thurmond, who did it to the Democrats in South Carolina’s Senate primary in 1954.)
With almost all the precincts reporting, 41 percent of the voters had marked the “write-in” oval. Tea Party Republican Joe Miller appeared stuck at 34 percent and Democrat Scott McAdams trailed with about 24 percent.
However, that does not quite mean that Murkowski has made history. Not yet. Alaska’s computerized vote counting system reports how many ballots contain write-ins, but it can't read the names. The Miller and McAdams organizations persuaded more than a hundred citizens to file as write-in Senate candidates, in an effort to mess with Murkowski’s campaign. Until human vote-counters in Juneau eyeball the names on the ballots, that 7 percentage point lead can only be credited to “write-in,” not to “Murkowski.”
Then there’s the matter of absentee ballots. The Division of Elections mailed about 31,000. That’s a lot, in an electorate a little more than half the size of King County’s. About 16,000 of those have been returned and the first of them won’t be counted until Nov. 9.
Weeks before the vote, this election had contributed priceless material to Alaska’s archive of the strange. Miller, having won the GOP primary with heavy money from California, seemed to be sailing toward a win over Murkowski and McAdams when his past and personality got in his way. He hired security guards who made a citizen’s arrest of a pushy reporter who insisted on asking Miller questions that the candidate had said he would not tolerate. The questions had to do with the conditions of his leaving the employment of the North Star Borough of Fairbanks, where he worked as a part-time attorney.
Police arrived and ordered the release of the handcuffed reporter, whose online news service was suing with the state’s leading newspapers to force the release of Miller’s employment records. When a judge ordered the records made public, they were found to include an email in which Miller admitted lying about his unauthorized entry into city-owned computers and using them for political purposes.
Murkowski’s own political career encompasses some history that in America’s lower and far less interesting states might seem bizarre. Her father, (3) Frank Murkowski, resigned from the U.S. Senate to win election as governor, then appointed his daughter to his vacant seat in 2002.
In challenging the odds as a write-in, Murkowski had to educate voters on how to spell her name. That challenge became somewhat less daunting when the state’s supreme court ruled, a few days ago, that poll watchers could show prospective voters a list of write-in candidates, inside the polling stations.
The spelling issue led to another memorable Alaska moment on Tuesday (Nov. 2). Sen. Murkowski’s husband, Verne Martell, leaned out of the voting booth to ask his wife, “Hey hon, how you spell your last name?”