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Rossi wins; race heads to recount

Dino Rossi holds a 261-vote lead in the race for Washington governor. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Dino Rossi holds a 261-vote lead in the race for Washington governor. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – After 15 days, one lawsuit and nearly 2.9 million ballots counted, the closest statewide election in Washington history ground to a halt Wednesday showing Republican Dino Rossi winning the governor’s race by just 261 votes.

Now the counting starts over.

“This race is far but over, and we’re in for the long haul,” Rossi’s Democratic opponent, Christine Gregoire, told a cheering crowd at a Seattle cultural center. “Who would ever have thought that today we’d be in a virtual tie? But we are.”

“This is going to be an interesting ride,” said Secretary of State Sam Reed.

The way things look, he said, Washington’s next chief executive will be determined by just “a handful of votes.”

Since the race ended well within the 2,000-vote margin requiring a mandatory recount, county election officials across the state will run the ballots through tabulating machines again, some as early as Saturday. Reed said the tally should be done by Wednesday.

“At that time, presumably, we’ll be able to announce the winner,” he said.

No statewide election has ever been reversed by a recount, but this race’s margin of victory so far is paper-thin: less than one-one-hundredth of 1 percent. And recounts frequently turn up different counts, due to things like paper “chad” being knocked loose from partially-punched punch card ballots. In the U.S. Senate race four years ago, Democrat Maria Cantwell gained 177 votes and Republican Slade Gorton lost 99. If that happens in this race, Gregoire will be governor.

Rossi said Wednesday night that he’s not nervous. He pointed out that Cantwell was in the lead when the initial tally ended, and only got better in the recount. He’s hoping to repeat that.

“I’m on the right side of this first count, which is good,” he said.

If his lead holds, Rossi will be Washington’s first Republican governor in 20 years. He ran on a simple platform: he’d improve the economy by making Washington more business-friendly and would be a fresh force for change in bureaucratic Olympia.

“Making history isn’t easy,” he told his supporters after the results were announced. “It certainly isn’t timely, either.”

The next closest governor’s race in Washington was nowhere near this close. In 1912, Democrat Ernest Lister won 30.55 percent of the vote, enough to wrest the governorship away from Republican Marion Hay, who got 30.35 percent of the vote. (The remaining votes were split between Socialist, Socialist Labor, Prohibition and Progressive party candidates.) The margin of victory in 1912 was 622 votes, which due to population growth equates to nearly a 6,000-vote margin today.

In this year’s race, Libertarian candidate Ruth Bennett got 63,346 votes, leading some to compare her to Ralph Nader and his 2000 presidential campaign, which may have cost Al Gore the election. Libertarians normally are thought to take votes from Republicans, but Bennett ran as an “out” lesbian who strongly favors same-sex marriage.

Rossi and Gregoire said Wednesday night that they’d stay out of the public light until the recount is done. Rossi is taking his wife and four children on a Thanksgiving-week vacation, and wouldn’t say where. He said he’ll be in phone contact with his transition team, which has been working since last week to prepare the plans for a Rossi administration. Gregoire’s transition team is doing the same thing.

Wednesday’s final tally capped more than two weeks of pins-and-needles waiting for the candidates, party leaders and volunteers, and the reporters and Web loggers who tried to read the tea leaves every time a new batch of votes was counted.

“Frankly, I haven’t slept well,” said state Democratic Party chairman Paul Berendt. He’d frequently get up in the middle of the night to project vote totals or wonder what else could be done.

Reed, a Republican, said he’s been stunned by the close margin in the governor’s contest.

“This race is being watched throughout the country,” he said.

Unlike the 2000 Senate race, in which Cantwell trailed for weeks and then overtook Gorton and won, this governor’s race was a maddening seesaw. The lead changed hands more than 10 times, most of that in the past three days.

“This is a whole different level,” said Berendt.

Rossi began Wednesday up by 19 votes. As more and more counties reported their tallies, his lead grew to a comfortable 405 votes.

Then a surge of Seattle-area votes buoyed Gregoire, putting her ahead by 41 votes.

An hour later, Rossi had retaken the lead – by just four votes. Then Gregoire was up again by 13.

When the dust settled after hundreds of ballots from Rossi-leaning Benton County, Rossi had his 261-vote lead.

The drum-tight race sent scores of party volunteers across the state, trying to squeeze out every possible vote for their candidate.

“Every little dib and dab helps at this point,” said Berendt.

The final arbiters of what got counted and what didn’t were county election officials. Across Washington, canvassing boards met to count any remaining absentee or provisional ballots for which signatures could be verified, add them to totals and certify the results.

In Spokane County on Wednesday, the board, which consisted of Auditor Vicky Dalton, Commissioner Phil Harris and Deputy Prosecutor Steve Kinn, reviewed 10 absentee ballots that had come in without signatures, and had affidavits collected by the political parties to verify a signature.

A voter who doesn’t sign the envelope containing a mail-in ballot receives a letter from the Elections Office, asking him or her to sign a copy of the envelope or to come into the office. Because the governor’s race is so close, however, the party volunteers took copies of an affidavit to voters who hadn’t signed their ballots and hadn’t responded to the county’s prompting.

“There’s nothing in (state laws) that addresses this situation,” Dalton said.

But Harris said the intent of the law was clear and “the end result is the same.”

After reviewing the signature on each ballot, the board voted to accept all 10, even though a few signatures did not perfectly match the signatures on record.

“This person’s 87 years old. We do get to make allowances for age,” Harris said.

They also accepted another nine votes from voters who came in and signed affidavits after election workers said they had questions about the signatures on the absentee envelopes.

“This one has three different signatures,” Dalton said while looking at one affidavit.

“She’s a doctor. You’ll notice the M.D. after the name,” Kinn said.

But the board rejected a ballot apparently dropped off at a polling station in another state. It wasn’t postmarked, and there was no way of telling when it was cast. It also rejected two ballots that weren’t in the office by Tuesday’s deadline, even though an election worker had told one of the voters they had until today.

“I don’t think there’s any wiggle room to waive the law,” Harris said.

Such decisions are common for canvassing boards in every election, but with the governor’s race so close they took on special importance.

In the end, Spokane County counted an extra 19 ballots, raising Rossi’s local tally from 105,427 to 105,435, and Gregoire from 90,441 to 90,452.

“That’s a two-vote gain for Gregoire,” said Harris, doing quick math.

“Three,” corrected Dalton.