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Alaska court ruling boosts Murkowski

The Alaska Supreme Court late Friday cleared the way for limited distribution of write-in candidate lists in the state’s U.S. Senate election, providing an important boost for incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski.

But the list will contain 161 names instead of just a few, thanks in part to conservative radio talk show host Dan Fagan, who exhorted listeners Thursday to register as write-in candidates. On Friday, he was taken off the air, at least temporarily.

The high court’s decision could be crucial: Murkowski, who leads in some opinion polls, needs voters to spell her name reasonably correctly. Some of her supporters are Alaska Natives with limited skills in written English.

Murkowski is trying to retain her seat against Democrat Scott McAdams and Tea Party Express-backed Joe Miller, who defeated her in the August Republican primary and has been endorsed by former Gov. Sarah Palin.

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The court ruled that lists of certified write-in candidates could be offered to voters who ask for the kind of help that such a list might provide.

“The Division [of Elections] may provide the list only when its use is tailored to address a voter’s request for specific assistance,” the court said in an order handed down late Friday. If a voter only requested the correct spelling of a specific candidate’s name, it would not be necessary to hand out the entire list, the court said.

On Wednesday, a lower court barred election officials from distributing the lists, ruling that they violated the state’s prohibition on electioneering within 200 feet of polling places. The court stayed that ruling within hours.

In its decision Friday, the high court said anti-electioneering rules were trumped by case law and by another law requiring officials to “assist” voters.

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The “myriad reasons” voters might need help carrying out their intent could include language barriers and memory problems or learning disabilities that make word retrieval difficult, the high court said.

“Providing the proper spelling of names written in English could assist those voters who want to vote for a particular candidate and need assistance in ensuring that they write the candidate’s name correctly,” the court said.

Murkowski’s campaign lauded the ruling. “The bottom line is it should be easier for Alaskans to vote, not harder, and this decision makes that possible,” campaign manager Kevin Sweeney said.

Earlier, the exhortations from talk show host Fagan to commit acts of “civil disobedience” and join the write-in list led to flocks of potential “candidates” filing by Thursday’s deadline.

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Fagan was joined by a chorus of conservative websites, including Conservatives4Palin, which urged Alaskans to “assist Joe Miller through ‘Operation Alaska Chaos.’”

Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government website also urged Alaska conservatives to download registration forms and send them in before Thursday’s deadline.

“Those who disagree with the [Supreme Court’s initial] decision say the state’s entire political process is at stake,” Breitbart’s website said. “There is something qualified Alaskans can and should do today to let those in power know you are paying attention to how they use it.”

Division of Elections chief Gail Fenumiai said 161 write-in candidates had been certified for the Senate race, including Murkowski.

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On Friday, Fagan said, station managers prevented him from doing his daily afternoon program after the Murkowski campaign reportedly complained that he was “electioneering.”

“My manager decided to pull me off the air today and have our corporate attorneys review the broadcast Thursday to make sure that I did not violate [Federal Election Commission] laws,” he said in an interview. “A talk show host by his very nature is an electioneer. I promote and criticize candidates all the time. That’s just what you do. There’s no substance to this whatsoever, and I disagree with the management’s decision to take me off the air.”

Station managers did not return phone calls seeking comment. Fagan said they had agreed to review his status on Monday.

Murkowski campaign officials said no legal action had been threatened.

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A campaign media consultant, former longtime Anchorage anchorman John Tracy — for whom Fagan once worked at another station — said he telephoned KFQD’s station manager to argue that a journalistic line had been crossed.

“He was literally appealing for anybody whose name was Lisa and whose last name rhymed with Murkowski to go down and file, so if there was a questioned ballot, that ballot would be thrown out,” Tracy said. “He was very, very clear about that.

“His purpose was to try to knock out as many write-in ballots for Lisa Murkowski as he possibly could, which I thought was over the line.”

kim.murphy@latimes.com


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