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Rossi keeps fight, and hope, alive in race for governor

OLYMPIA – In a governor’s race that’s flip-flopped back and forth many times, Dino Rossi is hoping to flip it back once more.

Having lost the third and final count by just 129 votes, Rossi’s supporters and their lawyers are combing election rec-ords for signs of fraud or big errors. They have until Jan. 22 to challenge Washington’s closest-ever state election.

Yet as workers scan lists of voters and interview people whose votes weren’t counted, the question remains: After several lawsuits, three counts, and more than eight weeks of post-election turmoil, is Rossi taking the fight too far?

“The risky thing is to start looking like a sore loser or somebody who’s just trying to create additional conflict,” said David Nice, a political science professor at Washington State University.

“Unless there’s something I haven’t seen, I’d say he needs to suck it up and get on with things,” said Ron Reed, a small-business owner in Chattaroy. “Yeah, it was close, but this is the way it ended up.”

Rossi said Thursday that supporters have been urging him to fight. After all, he won the first two automated counts in the race, only to lose the third, a hand count.

“We’re getting flooded with phone calls and e-mails now from people saying, ‘Press on, press on,’ ” Rossi said at his Bellevue campaign headquarters. “So that’s what we’re going to do.”

“I think he’s right to pursue this,” said Jerry Van Belle, a Spokane small-business man. “The race is so close, I feel we just can’t really know who won.”

Van Belle supports an idea Rossi floated Wednesday: a runoff election. But his Democratic opponent, Christine Gregoire, now governor-elect, said she will not agree to a runoff. The election’s over, she said, and her job now is to heal the election divisions and get people working together.

“The plaque on the desk doesn’t say ‘Gov. Gregoire By 129 Votes,’ ” she said in an interview. “It says, ‘Gov. Gregoire.’ “

Many of Rossi’s supporters are angry at election officials in King County, a Democratic bastion and home to more than one-fourth of the state’s population. During the hand recount, King County discovered that it had wrongly failed to count hundreds of ballots. Those ballots boosted Gregoire’s final win from just 10 votes to the final 129. Republicans were livid over the “found” ballots.

“Personally, I don’t trust the results in King County. It was like, ‘Let’s count ‘em till we win,’ ” said Patrick O’Brien, a Spokane resident who runs power generating stations. “I just think there’s enough hanky-panky going on over there that I’m not sure the vote’s real at this point.”

‘Another thorn’ for Eastern Washington

Particularly in Eastern Washington, it didn’t help Republican perceptions that those additional votes were coming from the dominant Seattle area.

“It’ll be another thorn,” predicted Donna Nielsen, a Spokane Valley retiree.

Like other Rossi backers, she’s unhappy that some military members didn’t get their ballots until too late. Election officials say that’s the fault of the military postal system, not county election offices. But Nielsen argues that if King County could make room for those hundreds of ballots that weren’t discovered until just a couple of weeks ago, the state should make room for ballots from service members.

“The military guys overseas did not get to vote,” she said. “They’re laying down their lives for us, and they, above all, are entitled to vote.”

But the state’s top election official – Republican Secretary of State Sam Reed – said Thursday that he hasn’t seen any evidence of the sort of fraud or gross errors that back up a court or legislative challenge to the election results.

“It has been a very transparent process,” Reed said. “Any mistake that’s been identified has been immediately made public.”

The final hand recount, he said, was the most accurate of the three counts, because it was monitored closely by both parties.

Some political observers say that Rossi’s challenge could easily backfire and be viewed as sour grapes. And if voters end up convinced that the election process is hopelessly flawed, they say, the repercussions will be much bigger than usual partisan fighting.

“This isn’t just health care or the war in Iraq or property taxes. This is the democratic process itself. They’re playing with fire,” said John Gastil, a political communications professor at the University of Washington.

During the 2000 presidential election, the Democrats had many election problems to challenge, he said.

“Even then, it reached the point where Al Gore decided that politically, this was not going to help the party in the long run, and that they’d look like babies. It (Gore’s conceding the race) let the Democrats maintain some of the high ground.”

“I think we’ve done about all you can do to assure that every vote that should have been counted has been,” said Nick Lovrich, interim chancellor for WSU Spokane and a longtime political science professor. “Challenges were heard in a timely way, and it’s time to move on. We’re going to lose a connection between voters and the system if this happens every time there’s an election.”

Rossi has repeatedly said that it will hurt the state if the next governor isn’t viewed as the legitimate winner.

“I wouldn’t want to take office with this cloud overhead,” he said Thursday.

But having a “mandate” from voters isn’t really necessary once someone is in charge, Lovrich said.

“President Bush didn’t have much of a mandate, and it didn’t hurt him,” Lovrich said. “Once it’s decided, the governor is the governor and has lots of power.”

“When the governor gets elected, people tend to say, ‘This is the governor now, all hail the king, long live the king,’ ” Gastil said. “This is how elections work. There’s winners and losers. And the losers need to go to Europe and grow a beard and relax, like Al Gore. And the winners need to govern.”