In many ways, though, the case may presage legal chaos to come.
Murkowski's extremely viable write-in candidacy--and her status as an incumbent ousted by a more extreme member of her own party--make this race virtually unprecedented in U.S. electoral history. This lack of precedent, however, also guarantees post-Election-Day legal challenges. If the vote counts are as close as many expect, this race could stall the formation of a Senate majority and potentially even wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
* * *
On November 3, when most Senate candidates will be hosting victory parties or giving concession speeches, Alaska's Senate race will be far from over. According to Randy Ruedrich, chairman of the state's Republican Party, anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of Alaska's votes could be absentee or provisional. These votes will be counted by November 18. It's possible one candidate will gain a lead of five or six percentage points before the 18th, prompting the other candidates to concede. But in a three-way race that has been polling very close (though polling in Alaska is notoriously unreliable), a five or six point lead with only 60 to 70 percent of ballots counted is unlikely.
The Division of Elections will not sort through write-in ballots (deciding which ones were cast for Murkowski) unless they would account for enough votes for her to win, or unless the total of write-ins comes within 1 percent of the candidate who receives the most votes. After all the votes are counted if a candidate is within half a percent of an opponent, the state will fund an automatic recount. If the margin is over half a percent, the losing candidate can request a self-funded recount.
In the case of a very close race, regardless of recounts, it is extremely likely that candidates or parties will sue, further prolonging the decision process. Both parties will have volunteers closely monitoring polling places for any signs of impropriety. And one of the key legal questions will be what exactly counts as a vote for Murkowski.
The Division of Elections has said that it will not require perfect spelling of Murkowski's name but will instead use a standard of voter intent. This protocol is obviously ambiguous and, since the state does not have many precedents for write-in campaigns of this seriousness and scale, open to challenge. If "Lisa" doesn't count, then would "Lisa M."? Given that there's a Lisa M. Lackey on the write-in list, this iteration might not be sufficient.
Tom DeLay's district in Texas tackled similar questions when a write-in candidate named Shelley Sekula-Gibbs ran for DeLay's seat after the House Majority leader resigned in 2006. In evaluating write-in ballots, a bipartisan panel ended up compiling a 28-page list of accepted spellings of Sekula-Gibbs' name, including everything from Snelly Gibbr, to ShelleySkulaGibbsssss, to Shelly DraculaCunt Gibs.
* * *
This is the kind of nitty-gritty election procedure that can lead to never-ending court battles that exhaust observers and bleed candidates dry. After the 2008 elections, Minnesotan Senate candidates Al Franken and Norm Coleman began an eight-month legal battle and protracted recount. Only in July 2009 was Franken sworn into the Senate.