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Governor’s Race So Close, Yet So Divisive

Times Staff Writer

Every vote counts, and every vote should be counted. If only it were that simple.

In the increasingly bizarre and dizzyingly close race for governor in Washington state, the votes already have been counted -- twice. Except for some votes that haven’t been counted at all: Those are being fought over in court.

As things stand now, Republican Dino Rossi is the governor-elect, by 42 votes of the nearly 2.9 million cast, a hairbreadth margin of 0.0015%. If the contest were a 100-meter dash, Rossi would be ahead of Democrat Christine Gregoire by about 1 millimeter.

But the race is not over, and an unprecedented hand recount of the previous machine-fed tallies has unearthed roughly 500 additional votes for each candidate -- as well as a mysterious trove of some 735 still-sealed, never-before-counted absentee ballots here in largely Democratic King County.

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Those votes, which county officials say went unopened due to a computer malfunction compounded by a clerical error, could be the key to a victory for Gregoire, the state attorney general, over Rossi, a state senator.

Democrats say, “Let’s count all the votes.” Republicans smell a rat.

With the disputed votes in a judicial lockdown and the major parties in a legal smackdown, and with one former Washington secretary of state calling for an entirely new election, the state’s clean-government image is taking a pounding.

Even staunch defenders of the state’s vote-counting apparatus are straining for favorable comparisons to election fiascoes elsewhere, such as Ukraine.

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“Nobody’s gotten poisoned here,” pointed out Gene Hogan, chairman emeritus of Western Washington University’s political science department.

That may be true, but there is plenty of bile around, with each side essentially accusing the other of trying to steal the election.

“There is no way to tell if they are colossally incompetent or totally corrupt,” state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance said last week, referring to King County elections officials, who are appointed and officially nonpartisan.

Those officials announced Monday that they had mistakenly rejected 573 absentee ballots, due to malfunctions when those voters’ signatures had been scanned into the county computer system.

They said elections workers should have checked paper records that would have shown the signatures on sealed envelopes containing the absentee ballots to be valid, but instead put those ballots into a reject pile.

The mistake was discovered by Larry Phillips, a Democrat who is chairman of the King County Council, a powerful elected body here.

Phillips, like about 70% of state voters, had filled out an absentee ballot and mailed it in rather than casting a vote in person -- he was in Ohio on election day, working to get out the vote for Sen. John F. Kerry.

Last Sunday, while reviewing a list of rejected absentee ballots in his district encompassing Seattle’s Queen Anne, Magnolia and Ballard neighborhoods, Phillips came across a surprising name: Larry Phillips.

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“I was absolutely stunned. I said, ‘I can’t believe this -- they haven’t counted my vote,’ ” recalled Phillips in a telephone interview.

“I’m a perfect voter,” Phillips continued. “I’m a regular. I know what I’m doing. I’ve voted in every election since I was 21.”

Phillips said he started “raising the roof” with the elections board, and officials there said they soon discovered 573 apparently valid but unopened and uncounted absentee ballots.

Later in the week, they said, a worker noticed that none of the absentee ballots included last names beginning with A or B, and only two with C; 162 more valid but uncounted ballots were discovered stuck in a tray that was under other trays, the elections board said.

In the ensuing fracas, Republicans went to court and essentially accused Democrats of conducting an illegal postelection treasure hunt for new votes.

Democrats said the whole point of the hand recount was to find and correct any mistakes that had wrongly disenfranchised voters, be they Republican or Democratic.

On Friday, a state judge in Tacoma sided with the Republicans, ruling that the disputed King County ballots should not be opened.

“It is not appropriate to go back and revisit decisions on whether ballots should or should not be counted,” said the judge, Stephanie Arend.

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Democrats immediately appealed to the state Supreme Court, whose nine justices are elected in nonpartisan races. The court, which is generally considered left-leaning but hardly ensconced with one party, is expected to take up the matter early next week.

In arguments Friday, Democrats maintained that elections officials in 38 of the state’s 39 counties that had completed their hand recounts had certainly made “new decisions” about counting previously unrecorded ballots.

All told, Rossi has picked up 569 more votes and Gregoire 561, giving Rossi an unofficial margin of 50 votes statewide -- but with King County yet to report its hand-count tally of the roughly 900,000 votes cast there.

Republicans said those additional votes generally arose from machine-reading errors, such as cases when two ballots were stuck together and only one was read by the machine.

“It is too late in the game for them to decide more scrutiny needs to be brought to bear on these ballots,” said Harry Korrell, a Republican lawyer.

Other lawyers questioned the whole premise that a supervised hand recount would be more accurate than a machine count.

But Dean Logan, the King County elections director, said the county had every obligation to fix its mistakes, as other counties had already done.

“These are legitimate voters who cast legitimate ballots,” he said. “It’s just a travesty if we do not include these ballots.”

The hand recount is unprecedented but provided for under state law for a statewide election in which the winning margin is 150 votes or fewer. The state Democratic Party, with help from Kerry and the Howard Dean-inspired group Democracy for America, made a $730,000 down payment for costs of the recount, which would be refunded if Gregoire, the Democrat, ended up the winner.

Many experts here say that Washington state generally runs a very clean and accurate election system, and that uncounted ballots discovered in King and other counties, while unfortunate, did not appear to involve chicanery.

They also only represent a tiny fraction of all the votes in what amounts to an election so remarkably close that it should be considered a statistical tie.

“This is a cosmic coin flip; it is a 500-year flood in terms of voting,” said Lance T. LeLoup, a political science professor at Washington State University. “To be 42 votes apart out of nearly 3 million cast -- that is just unbelievably close.”

Indeed, by the standard of the 0.0015% margin in the election here, George W. Bush’s 537-vote, 0.0091% margin over Vice President Al Gore in Florida seems a veritable landslide. So does Lyndon B. Johnson’s 87-vote, 0.0088% win in one of the most famous Senate races in U.S. history: the 1948 Texas contest that spurred his “Landslide Lyndon” nickname.

Both candidates have tried to project an air of calm confidence through the nearly seven-week recount.

Rossi, a wealthy Realtor and former state Senate budget chairman, even went on a Caribbean vacation with his family, returning to tell reporters he was “tanned, rested and ready to turn the state of Washington around.” He would be the first Republican governor here in 20 years.

Despite that jaunty air, however, some Republicans are nervous that the Democrats might prevail in the third count. If Gregoire wins, it would be the first time in history that a state’s governor and two U.S. senators would all be women.

Ralph Munro, a Republican and Rossi ally who for 20 years oversaw elections here as the Washington secretary of state, said this week that “this thing could just degenerate and spiral downward,” and that the best solution might be a completely new election.

Gregoire, the three-term attorney general, dismissed the new-election idea as “ludicrous” in a telephone interview Friday.

“There’s a system in place when elections are this close,” said Gregoire, “and this is exactly the process we’re going through.”


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