The Great Alaska Spelling Bee

The endgame of the Alaska Senate race between Joe Miller and Lisa Murkowski began today, as election authorities began sifting through the massive pile of over 90,000 write-in votes.  The Associated Press reports these ballots will be examined by a team of 30 election workers, plus observers from both campaigns, and an overseer from the Alaska Division of Elections.  That averages out to 3000 ballots per worker.  Miller’s attorney is challenging the state’s decision to use “discretion” where the written spelling of a candidate’s name does not precisely match the name on the declaration of candidacy.  An earlier decision to discount write-in votes for Miller was recently reversed.  This could take a while.

Alaskans who remember the Battle of Chad in 2000 are probably numb with dread, although promises have been made to keep this count from degenerating into chaos.  Since both Murkowski and Miller are (nominally) Republicans, there shouldn’t be as much partisan hand-to-hand combat.  On the other hand, the first lawsuit has already been filed, and swarms of hungry lawyers are orbiting the defense funds of both candidates.

The most likely point of contention will be ballots that clearly indicate Murkowski as the write-in candidate, but do not spell her name correctly.  Murkowski put a lot of effort into educating her voters about the write-in process, and her name isn’t that hard to spell.  (God help Daniel Inouye of Hawaii if he ever has to run as a write-in candidate!)  Nevertheless, it’s just a given that some of her supporters will misspell her name, and nobody on her side of the contest will be happy if a vote for Lisa Mirkowsy is not counted… even though the Division of Elections has been quite clear on this point.

The protracted Alaska race illustrates an important reason why the Republicans did not do as well in the Senate as they did in the House this year.  There are fewer Senators, so they are individually more valuable to both statewide and national interests.  This is not a value judgment about corruption – it’s just common sense.  The immense size of the federal government inflates the value of a Senate seat, which is what brings the sea of dirty money crashing into elections, no matter how many campaign finance reform sandbags are thrown down by good-government crusaders. 

Even in a smaller and cleaner government, the power of a Senator would be great, causing a network of interests to form behind incumbents.  Murkowski was a bit of a joke to conservatives in the Lower Forty-Eight States after she lost her primary… but she developed a solid base of connections in Alaska, and when Miller’s campaign made a few stumbles, everybody stopped laughing.  Murkowski had the money to make her write-in campaign happen.  There is every reason to believe the bulk of her voters will pass the Great Alaska Spelling Bee with flying colors.

Similar stories were told on Election Night around the country.  The Tea Party movement learned a great deal about the power of incumbency, and the efficiency of well-established political machines, last week.  We don’t have to get into arguments about how “bad” some of the defeated Republican Senate candidates were, to understand there is very little room for error when running against entrenched Senators-for-Life, or their designated successors.  Harry Reid was re-elected by Nevada voters who disapproved of his job performance by 55%.  His opponent, Sharron Angle, finished with a 53% disapproval rating.  No 25-year Senate career is going to end under those circumstances, much less that of the Senate Majority Leader.  Angle might have survived her mistakes in a campaign for the House, but there is much less margin for error in a Senate race.

That’s why thirty poor souls will spend the coming weeks on the outskirts of Juneau, staring at scribbles and trying to decide if they say “Lisa Murkowski.”  Miller could still win – he did fairly well in a count of absentee ballots – but he could have made this all unnecessary by running a nearly perfect race.  Nothing less will do when a Senate seat is on the line.