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Political InQueery: Spelling Bees as Elections

Murkowski supporters

In the Republican primary for Alaska's Senate seat last summer, Joe Miller beat Lisa Murkowski by the razor-thin margin of 2,000 votes, or less than 1 percent of the total ballots cast. This would have signaled the end for the vast majority of losing candidates, but when Murkowski was asked, again and again, to launch a write-in campaign by residents who apologized for not voting on primary day, she sat down with her extended family to talk it over. Against pollster and campaign experts' advice, and against the wishes of her own Republican Party, she launched a write-in campaign against Joe Miller. As of this weekend she is leading her GOP opponent by a little more than 11,000 ballots. If Murkowski wins, it will be the first write-in win for the Senate since Strom Thurmond did it in 1954 in South Carolina.

Murkowski ballotThe Alaskan election ended very differently from another spotlighted, three-way race for the Senate this year in Florida, and one of the reasons was that Murkowski captured very well the votes of independents and even some Democrats who very much wanted to avoid having Miller as their junior senator. There's also the issue of Miller's so-called "implosion," in which his habit of acting paranoid and giving testy remarks to the press culminated in his bodyguards handcuffing an Alaska Dispatch reporter at one of his rallies, and by then, he looked every bit the fringe candidate.

With tens of thousands of write-in ballots under scrutiny by elections officials, Miller tried to get out in front of the recount, suggesting that every ballot not made out precisely to "Lisa Murkowski" be counted as a vote for him. This is ludicrous even on its face, because his name is already printed on the ballot; presumably votes for him would be marked next to his typed name. It is an entirely different dilemma than the one that presented itself in 2000's presidential election, when the district including Palm Beach, Florida, used a butterfly ballot design that significantly increased errors in voting. Someone writing "Lisa Munkowski" or "Lisa Murkowsky" probably means to vote for the incumbent senator and not their friend from the bowling league with the very similar name.

elections official in AlaskaI'd like to point out that there are models used in the government already to determine if two names written differently refer to the same person, or if similarly written names are supposed to represent different people. In thinking of something like one's Social Security earnings record, of paramount importance is ensuring that the Federal withholding attributed by Monica Ethel Scarkofsky not be inserted incorrectly onto Monica E. Scarcofski's record. Algorithms and other identifying information—dryly called data points—help clarify who is who in these enormous databases. Election officials in Alaska don't have multiple data points. They have the required filled-in oval, and the write-in name, which may have varying levels of legibility. Their rationale for deciding voter intent? If they can read the handwriting, and if it's at least phonetically the same as Murkowski.

To some degree, this process begs a conversation about ethnicity. What if the Senator's last name weren't as familiar to the residents of Alaska? If her father hadn't been Governor of Alaska, or if she hadn't been so well known in her state? Or if her last name had been more difficult to spell? What are the implications for future elections—not that write-in campaigns are all that common—if the situation is similar but the last name complicated? Should candidates named Smith be allowed to have an easier go of it?

Miller's team is attempting to invalidate as many of the write-in votes as possible, and it's not clear how long this recount and subsequent legal process will continue. On Monday the absentee ballots will begin to be counted, potentially further obscuring the results of this election. If Murkowski should prevail, there will need to be some healing between her and the Republican Party, as they were not exactly supportive of her campaign after the primary. And while the news media repeats its coverage on the popularity of Tea Party candidates and Senators-elect in this election cycle, the story of the long-shot GOP moderate who wouldn't give up may provide an entirely different narrative—and reality—that could be explored before the avalanche begins for the 2012 races.

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