Murkowski passes Miller in vote count

The Murkowski campaign is all but claiming victory as Sen. Lisa Murkowski leads Joe Miller by more than 1,700 votes after Monday's review of write-in ballots.

The Division of Elections has now counted 92,164 votes for Murkowski and 90,458 for Miller. Murkowski's number will grow as the state continues to go through write-in ballots today, looking to see what name voters wrote on them.

More than 8,000 write-in ballots remain to be looked at. The trend since counting began last week has been for the Division of Elections to count more than 97 percent of them for Murkowski.

Murkowski campaign manager Kevin Sweeney said he won't be claiming victory until all the votes are counted. But, assuming the trend continues, Sweeney said Miller has to be thinking about giving up. Sweeney said he doesn't see how the math works out for Miller to think it's going to do him any good to keep trying to get the courts to toss out misspelled ballots. It looks like there will be enough perfectly spelled ballots for Murkowski to win, Sweeney said.

"It's hard for me to figure that they would be able to look at these numbers and come up with any reasonable move other than facing the fact that Lisa Murkowski won the election," Sweeney said.

The Miller campaign insists that's not the case. Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto said he still thinks the court challenge could get enough votes thrown out for Miller to win.

"The race is far from over," DeSoto said.

The review of write-in ballots began last Wednesday and should essentially finish in the next day or so. The Murkowski campaign's numbers show another 10,000 write-ins remain to be counted. It predicts that Murkowski is going to end up with a total exceeding 100,000 votes given the trend of the count.

That could give Murkowski a lead over Miller in the 10,000-vote range once the counting is over.

Miller ballot observers so far have challenged 7,601 of the votes the state has counted for Murkowski. Miller has filed a lawsuit asking the federal courts to throw out the challenged ballots that are misspelled or otherwise not written perfectly.

But some of the ballots that Miller observers challenged were clearly spelled right and looked to be filled in correctly. So it's likely that not all the challenged ballots would be tossed, even if Miller ended up winning the lawsuit.

Miller spokesman DeSoto, though, said the race is still in play. He said he believes Miller and Murkowski will end up with about the same total of votes, if you subtract the votes Miller challenged but the Division of Elections counted.

Miller argues that state law doesn't allow misspelled votes. But the state and the Murkowski campaign say Alaska courts have indicated in the past that if "voter intent" can be determined from the ballot -- such as if a slight misspelling still produced a name that sounded like "Murkowski" -- that should be the standard.

Miller has said he would drop the fight if it was obvious he couldn't win. But his campaign said Monday that time hasn't arrived.

"At the end of six days of ballot counting, the race between Joe Miller and Lisa Murkowski is still very close," DeSoto said.

Miller was hoping to get a boost from absentee ballots. But Monday was the last big count of absentees and there turned out to be more write-ins than Miller votes.

Only about 600 absentee ballots remain to be counted later this week from military and overseas addresses, according to the Division of Elections.