Election 2010: Part Two — Does Spelling Count?

My students often ask whether spelling counts on quizzes and tests.  I understand what they are asking, and in general, if they are close on a test, they get credit.  For instance, Nebuchadnezzar is not an easy name to spell.  But philosophically, I want them to care more about spelling because it’s a matter of respect.  To look at a “foreign” name and decide that it’s “too hard to spell” seems to devalue the culture you are learning about.  So when we learn about Rome, students should spell Caesar’s name correctly.

Here’s a nice statement I found on a career blog about the importance of spelling: 

…spelling is as essential as making eye contact when you meet someone new: it’s a fundamental part of making a strong impression. When someone looks you in the eye, you know that you have their attention; when you take the time to spell, you show that you care about both the appearance and the content of your information. Good spelling also demonstrates that you are good with details, and that you are paying attention. This builds trust, and increases the likelihood that your ideas will be carefully considered. Bottom line: I’ll stick with the timeless assertion that a typo on your resume or cover letter can still–quite possibly–land you in the reject pile.

And here’s an excerpt from the E.B. White classic children’s book, Stuart Little.  This is how Stuart handled spelling in the class he taught:

“A misspelled word is an abomination in the sight of everyone,” said Stuart. “I consider it a very fine thing to spell words correctly and I strongly urge every one of you to buy a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and consult it whenever you are in the slightest doubt. So much for spelling. What’s next?”

The mindset Stuart brings is one I wish more of my students would adopt — that good writing matters, and you should strive to communicate as clearly as possible.  Sadly, students are obsessed with grades, and so they ask: “does spelling count?”

What does all this have to do with the elections?  Well, in Alaska, there is a crazy race going on for the U.S. Senate.  Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, is the incumbent (current office holder) senator from Alaska.

She ran in the Republican primary election against Joe Miller, a political newcomer who has never held office, but who was backed by the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. 

Miller won a very close race.  Here’s how PBS reported the story at the end of August:

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski became the latest incumbent to lose a re-election battle this year as she conceded to challenger Joe Miller Tuesday evening a week after their primary.

Murkowski had trailed Miller, a Fairbanks attorney who has never held elected office but was backed by former Gov. Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express, by 1,668 votes. Election officials began counting absentee and outstanding ballots Tuesday. Murkowski gained some votes but was never able to get Miller’s lead below 1,100 votes.

So that Republican primary should have determined the election, because Alaska is a heavily Republican state.  Or so I thought — I just checked into it and as of 2008, according to the Alaska Daily News, the registered voters in Alaska divided this way:

Democratic: 15 percent (76,792)
Republican: 25 percent (126,583)
Non partisan: 15 percent (77,227)
Undeclared: 37 percent (185,587) 

I’m not sure about the difference between “Non-partisan” and “Undeclared,” but the essence is that more than half the electorate in Alaska does what it wants.  However, from a party “base” perspective, there are more Republicans — 25% to 15%.  [Note that in my research just now, I learned that Alaska does have a Democratic senator, Mark Begich, who, in 2008, defeated Ted Stevens.  Stevens had been the longest-serving Republican senator ever, serving for more than 40 years (December 24, 1968 – January 3, 2009)].

I also learned that Lisa Murkowski has a famous father (famous in Alaska, anyway) — the former Governor, Frank Murkowski.  Before he was elected Governor in 2002, he was Alaska’s senator (along with Ted Stevens).  Here’s how Wikipedia describes what happened in 2002:

Upon his inauguration, he resigned his Senate seat and appointed his daughter, Lisa Murkowski, the Majority Leader-designate of the Alaska House of Representatives, in his place. His opponents derided the appointment as an act of nepotism.

So that’s how Lisa got her senate seat.  Her daddy gave it to her for the final two years of his term.  However, Lisa was elected to a full six-year term in 2004.  Which brings us to the 2010 election.

How weird is it that an incumbent senator loses her OWN PARTY’S NOMINATION to a political newbie?  Almost as weird as what happened next — she decided to run as a write-in candidate.  And it looks like she’s going to win.

Here’s what the Alaska ballot looks like:

In order for Lisa Murkowski to win, she’d have to get a whole bunch of people to fill in that bubble next to the blank line at the bottom of the ballot and write her name on the line.  Kind of like this (photo of an actual ballot, courtesy of the Anchorage Daily News):

When the ballots were tallied at the end of the election, Joe Miller had about 35%, Scott McAdams (the Democratic candidate) had about 24%, and the write-in ballots had 41% of the vote.

So if Murkowski gets more write-in ballots than Miller, she wins as a write-in candidate.  The spelling test comes in because what happens if people vote for Lisa Murkowsky?  Or Lisa M?  The Miller camp says those votes should not count — that spelling does matter.  The Murkowski camp says that voter intent is what matters.

It turns out Alaskans have wonderful penmanship (click link for an NPR article), and it’s pretty clear who they are voting for — and it’s Lisa Murkowski.

She actually did an amazing job making sure people in Alaska knew how to spell her name.  She’s pictured below with her two sons:


So spelling does count, and Alaskans know how to spell Murkowski.  And barring something really odd (but what could be odd about Alaska politics?), Lisa Murkowski should remain Alaska’s senator for the next six years — making her the first person to win a write-in campaign for U.S. Senate since 1954.

And if you have stuck with this blog entry (mini book?) this long, you will not be surprised that I have to ask the follow-up question for context:

What happened in 1954???  Here’s the quick explanation from Wikipedia:

The 1954 South Carolina United States Senate election was held on November 2, 1954 to select the next U.S. Senator from the state of South Carolina. Senator Burnet R. Maybank did not face a primary challenge in the summer and was therefore renominated as the Democratic Party’s nominee for the election in the fall. However, his death on September 1 left the Democratic Party without a nominee and the executive committee decided to nominate state Senator Edgar A. Brown as their candidate for the election. Many South Carolinians were outraged by the party’s decision to forgo a primary election and former Governor Strom Thurmond entered the race as a write-in candidate. He easily won the election and to this date has been the only U.S. Senator elected by a write-in vote.

And yes, for the record, I just spell checked this post.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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