AK-Sen: America’s Most Unpredictable Election

I don’t think anybody with a track record in polling is going out of their way to make any predictions about tomorrow’s Senate race in Alaska, the strangest in the country, and one sure not to be decided for weeks after the results come in. A day after national Republicans apparently gave up on Joe Miller and hoped write-in incumbent Lisa Murkowski would keep Scott McAdams from an upset victory, PPP showed Miller in the lead – even though the same poll showed him with liked the least out of all three candidates. McAdams, in fact, is easily the most popular – but is stuck tied with Murkowski in that poll, seven points behind Miller. Voters have seemingly not determined whether the strategic anti-Miller vote is for McAdams or Murkowski.

Democrats nonetheless have found renewed hope in the unpredictable race. Bill Clinton cut a robo-call for McAdams (is that so wise in Alaska? Maybe, if it goes specifically to Democratic voters), and Senate Democrats are spending late in the race.

Meanwhile, there’s no chance whatsoever that we will know the ultimate victor on Election Night.

The most likely way a result will be known relatively quickly is if one of Ms. Murkowski’s opponents appears clearly ahead after ballots are counted on election night. If Mr. Miller or Mr. McAdams is well ahead, state election officials may never have to bother counting write-in votes. Now for the “however” part.

Alaskans “bubble in” their votes on paper ballots. Anyone voting for a write-in candidate must fill in the oval beside the write-in option and also write in the candidate’s name. All write-in votes bubbled in are tabulated together, since the computers that tally the ballots cannot read handwriting. Write-in votes will be checked only to find out the name that was written if the general write-in category comes in either ahead of or within half a percent of the lead after all ballots are counted.

Make sense? But wait.

If write-in ballots are counted, it will not happen until about two weeks after Election Day. Why wait so long? As many as 30,000 ballots — potentially about 10 percent of all the ballots cast — could be cast as absentee ballots, according to state elections officials. People who cast absentee ballots, including ones sent from overseas, can have their ballots postmarked as late as Election Day. To account for possible delays in the mail, the state waits until 15 days after Election Day before it counts absentee ballots, which could determine whether they need to count the write-in ballots.

Once all ballots are received, even if the write-in category appears ahead, there is no certainty that enough of those ballots will have been cast for Ms. Murkowski to make her the winner or that a substantial number will not be disqualified for any number of reasons.

Alaska election officials have maintained that they will go by voter intent in determining which votes count. But the Operation Chaos in the state, with hundreds of people qualified as write-in candidates, could be ripe for campaign lawyers to use to disqualify votes.

This one is going to take forever. If it’s really close, you’ll probably have an analogous situation to the long seating process for Al Franken in 2009.

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David Dayen

David Dayen