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Waiting for a Governor in Washington

Times Staff Writer

There is absolutely no truth to the rumor, advanced by a New York columnist a few years ago, that elections officials in Washington state prefer to age ballots in oak casks before getting around to counting them.

That said, it’s two weeks after election day, and nobody has any idea who the state’s next governor will be.

Following detailed rules for certifying ballots, and with some mail-in votes still trickling in from overseas, election authorities have been releasing vote totals in what they call “batches” -- a bit like cookies from an oven.

The latest batch, reported Monday, kept the overall totals in the race agonizingly close. State Atty. Gen. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, has 1,360,871 votes while her Republican opponent, state Sen. Dino Rossi, has 1,360,713 -- a margin of one one-hundredth of a percent, according to the secretary of state.

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“There are a lot of folks over here with tired fingers,” said Morton Brilliant, a spokesman for the Gregoire campaign, explaining how the secretary of state’s Web page is updated throughout the day as new batches of results come in from Washington’s 39 counties.

“There are only so many times you can click on the ‘refresh’ button before you get a sprain,” Brilliant said.

Elections officials in Olympia are optimistic that the results will be final by Wednesday, the deadline for counties to issue their totals. On the other hand, if the margin between the candidates is less than 2,000 votes, an automatic recount is triggered.

This is not the first time the state’s residents have had to wait weeks to see how an election turned out.

Four years ago, it wasn’t until just before Thanksgiving that officials confirmed a razor-thin victory for Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, who ousted incumbent Republican Sen. Slade Gorton from his seat.

Washington’s seemingly laid-back approach to vote-counting made for national headlines at the time, because partisan control of the Senate potentially was at stake: Cantwell’s victory split the Senate 50-50, and the ongoing battle for the presidency made it unclear whether Dick Cheney or Sen. Joe Lieberman would emerge as the tie-breaking vice president.

The delay also prompted jokes at the state’s expense -- including the oak casks gag by Gail Collins, who was a then columnist for the New York Times -- and led to a fair amount of editorial hand-wringing within the state.

“Pony Express results in an Internet era,” bemoaned the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

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Elections officials have said that they would love to overhaul the system to provide for quicker counting, although they defended the integrity of the process. Laborious it may be, but virtually never tainted by scandal or fraud charges.

“It’s a good, fair, clean system,” said Nick Handy, the state’s director of elections. “It just takes a little bit longer.”

The delays, which stem largely from a law that counts all mail-in ballots as long as they are postmarked by election day, create water-drip torture for candidates in a close race -- as well as an odd spin cycle among political strategists from both parties.

Many hours of air time and many acres of newsprint are given over to the inevitable jostling over which candidate is better positioned to win, based on which counties have more outstanding batches of votes to report. As of late Monday, there were still an estimated 22,000 votes left to be counted.

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But most Washingtonians seem unfazed by not knowing who the governor will be; some even expressed amusement over the parallel transition planning that both Rossi and Gregoire are undertaking while they wait to see who actually gets to take the oath of office in January.

“I can’t say I sense any big outcry,” said Dori Monson, host of a popular AM talk-radio program in Seattle. “We’re kind of a region that’s paralyzed by process anyway, and people see it in so many other venues that they’re just not all that disturbed to have to wait for their election results.”

Referring to protracted battles in Seattle over light-rail and monorail lines -- both as yet unbuilt -- as well as fights over flashy new sports stadiums -- both now open -- Monson said Washington residents might have become immune to the idea that their votes could be counted quickly, even in close races.

“People are so accustomed to delays that they really may not even realize there is a more streamlined and efficient way of doing things,” Monson said.

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An example of such a way can be found just across the Columbia River in Oregon, which conducts balloting entirely by mail but puts the onus on voters to make sure their ballot is at their county elections board by election day. Oregon’s results, even in close races, are typically known that night. Still there is a faction in Washington that is critical of the voting system. Republican Secretary of State Sam Reed has proposed reforms that would require nearly all Washington ballots to be in hand by the end of election day.

Handy, the elections director, said officials would be happy to see the law changed to an Oregon-style requirement on mail-in ballots. Those are now used by about 70% of Washington’s voters, with the remainder voting the old-fashioned way -- at their local precinct.

The real nightmare scenario for elections officials is that a protracted count in a close primary race would make it virtually impossible to print up a general-election ballot on time.

The current provision -- “which is a little complicated to follow, I know,” Handy said -- mandates that the primary be held on the third Tuesday in September or the seventh Tuesday before the general election, whichever is earlier.

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“If we had to spend weeks counting those votes, you can see how we couldn’t make the general-election deadline,” Handy said.

“We’ve simply just been lucky not to have a train wreck with a primary contest.”


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