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Miller’s Chances of Victory Dim as Alaska Senate Write-In Count Begins

Results from the first day of tallying write-in ballots in Alaska suggest that Senator Lisa Murkowski, who ran a write-in campaign after being defeated in the Republican primary by Joe Miller, is very likely to win another term.

Prior to the processing of write-in ballots, an Associated Press count showed 92,979 write-in votes, versus 82,180 cast for Mr. Miller. That means that 10,800 write-in ballots — or 11.6 percent of them — would need to be something other than legal ballots cast for Lisa Murkowski.

Yesterday’s results, however — in which about one-fifth of the write-in ballots were processed — suggest that Mr. Miller has little chance of achieving that 11.6 percent threshold. According to reporting by the Anchorage Daily News:

  • About 0.9 percent of the write-in ballots were legal votes deemed to be cast for someone other than Lisa Murkowski.
  • Another 1.4 percent of write-in ballots, which appeared to be votes for Ms. Murkowski, were successfully challenged by Mr. Miller’s campaign.
  • Another 8.5 percent of write-in ballots were unsuccessfully challenged by Mr. Miller’s campaign and counted for Ms. Murkowski.

Together, these three categories add up to 10.8 percent: below the 11.6 percent threshold. If the first day of ballot-counting is representative of what will take place during the next four days, Ms. Murkowski would eventually be declared the winner by about 750 votes — even if all of Joe Miller’s challenges were eventually upheld in court.

Of course, that would not leave Ms. Murkowski with much margin for error — and the percentage of ballots in the various categories could differ somewhat as counting progresses to ballots received from other parts of the state. So it is also worth looking at which sorts of ballots Mr. Miller’s campaign is challenging.

Many of the challenged ballots contain minor spelling errors. The state is counting most of these ballots for Ms. Murkowski so far, according to the Anchorage Daily News article. But Mr. Miller might be able to argue successfully for a strict interpretation of state law that would eventually have them rejected. The article also suggests, however, that Mr. Miller’s campaign is also challenging some ballots on a much flimsier basis — such as for poor handwriting, or when there was nothing manifestly wrong with the ballot at all:

Some of the ballots challenged by Miller campaign observers Wednesday appeared to be correctly spelled “Lisa Murkowski,” with the oval filled in as required. [Division of Elections Director Gail] Fenumiai said she was seeing “a lot” of such apparently properly filled out write-in ballots being challenged.

Mr. Miller’s observers are surely aware of the mathematics behind the ballot-counting process, and it is possible that they are operating on what amounts to a quota to challenge at least as many ballots as would be necessary to leave the outcome of the race in at least some theoretical degree of doubt. There is a lot of gamesmanship in processes such as these. During the Minnesota Senate recount in 2008, the Al Franken and the Norm Coleman campaigns challenged a progressively higher fraction of one another’s ballots each day.

However many ballots Mr. Miller elects to challenge — and he could challenge every single ballot if he wanted to — only a certain fixed number of these challenges will have any realistic chance of being upheld. The fact that, on the first day of ballot counting, Mr. Miller’s campaign was already indulging in what seems to have been quite a number of frivolous challenges, and despite this, was still not able to challenge ballots at a rate consistent with what would eventually be required to deny Ms. Murkowski re-election, speaks quite poorly to his chances.

During the next several days of ballot counting, I would expect the fraction of ballots challenged by Mr. Miller’s campaign to increase: enough to put him beyond the 11.6 percent threshold that I described earlier, so that he could make some nominal claim that the outcome of the election was disputed. As a direct corollary of this, I would expect the average quality of Mr. Miller’s chances to decrease.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.