What a 'write-in' avalanche tells us

Posted: Sunday, November 07, 2010

By any measure, last Tuesday's write-in tally was a voter statement of Denali-sized proportions.

More than 83,000 voters filled in the write-in oval last week on the ballot for U.S. Senate. The next highest vote-getter for Senate was GOP candidate Joe Miller.

We'll find out later this month whether incumbent Lisa Murkowski's write-in candidacy was successful. But some lessons are obvious now, without knowing the final result.

* Rookie candidate mistakes will kill you. Mr. Miller should have learned that lesson by now. His campaign suffered mortal wounds at his own hand -- stonewalling questions about his past, including misuse of government computers and taking government handouts that he later campaigned against. Then there was that brouhaha over his hired security force handcuffing a journalist. Mr. Miller later admitted to these mistakes and to his campaigning naivety. But that admission wasn't enough to put him clearly on top.

* Candidates can't rely on ignoring an attack. That's what lost Ms. Murkowski the primary. Her campaign of touting the good she's done for Alaskans was drowned out by the opposition, which blasted the new health care law, the Wall Street bailout and the economic stimulus efforts -- and linked her to it all. The campaign tactics that Ms. Murkowski put into her write-in campaign may have served her better in the primary.

* Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Alaskans don't like being told who they can and cannot vote for.

This should be a lesson for the state GOP, because that party pushed for a closed primary system nearly 20 years ago. In 2001, after years of back-and-forth court decisions, the state Legislature made it so.

Up to then, Alaskans voted in an open primary -- there was just one ballot, and you got to vote for who you wanted, no matter the political party affiliation. To this day, nearly a decade later, many Alaska voters remember those days. Alaska voters still bristle at a primary that forces them to pick from multiple ballots. The refrain from voters is the same every primary election day -- "I didn't get to vote for who I wanted."

How many times has it been said, how many times has the media reported -- Alaskans vote differently. Political parties don't matter as much to voters here as the candidate him or herself. How else could it be possible for Republican Walter Hickel to win the 1990 gubernatorial election as an Alaska Independent?

Imagine how this year's primary election might have turned out with an open ballot.

What else could explain more than 83,000 write-in votes?

In short: No matter what the "rules" are, Alaskans are going to find ways to vote the person, not the political party.

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