Democratic challenger John Driscoll was declared the winner – again – over Republican Rep. John Ahern at the end of a hand recount of nearly 76,000 ballots in Spokane’s 6th Legislative District.
After about two days in which teams of election workers watched by party volunteers checked 75,947 ballots, the margin of victory for Driscoll changed from 74 votes to 72.
Both candidates were in Olympia on Thursday when the new totals were announced.
Driscoll, who was going through orientation for new lawmakers, said he was relieved.
“I didn’t know how much it was hanging over my head until now,” he said. “But now it’s over.”
Ahern, who celebrated his 74th birthday Thursday, said he considers the defeat a temporary setback.
“It’s somewhat disappointing, but what the heck, life goes on,” he said, shortly after spotting Driscoll outside the House office building and congratulating him. “If it’s OK with my wife, I’ll run in two years.”
The recount ended the state’s closest legislative race, in a district with some of its heaviest voter turnout. More than 88 percent of the voters cast ballots in the 6th District, which stretches from the Whitworth area in northwest Spokane to the Moran Prairie in the south, curving around the west side of the city’s core.
The recount was required under state law because the margin of victory was so narrow. Before it began, House Republicans challenged the process and asked to see ballots that had been replicated by elections workers because they couldn’t be read by the tabulating machines; a Spokane County Superior Court judge said the law didn’t let check those ballots without evidence of improper activity.
The Republicans might still seek to compare the original and replicated ballots under the state’s public records law, but that won’t Driscoll’s certification as the winner today by the county canvassing board.
In the end, the total number of ballots cast remained the same: 75,947 from the district’s 91 precincts. Vote checkers found two precincts where Ahern had one more vote than the machines recorded, and one precinct where he had one fewer vote. That gave him a net gain of one vote.
They also found one precinct where Driscoll had one more vote than machines recorded, and two where he had one fewer, giving him a net loss of one vote.
“No system is perfect,” county Auditor Vicky Dalton said. “This is a good check on the machine count.”
Elections Manager Mike McLaughlin estimated the process cost the county about $6,000 in salaries for the vote checkers, who are paid $13 an hour.
None of the observers for either party raised any questions about the ballots that resulted in a formal challenge. Spokane County GOP Chairman Curt Fackler and Driscoll campaign manager Meghan Quinn said the process went smoothly.
Voters in the district have tended to oust incumbents in recent elections, and they will have two freshmen in the House next year. Republican Kevin Parker defeated one-term Democratic Rep. Don Barlow, who defeated Republican John Serben in 2006. That was the same year Democrat Chris Marr defeated Republican incumbent Brad Benson for the district’s state Senate seat.
Ahern may give them a chance to switch again in two years. He said he loves campaigning, which he sees as a natural extension of his life’s work as a salesman. He plans to return to work at his company in Spokane, selling business equipment, but he said he’ll miss Olympia.
“I’ve made some darned good friends here,” he said, “and I intend to renew those in two years.”
Driscoll said he’ll push for local priorities such as the North Spokane Corridor during what’s widely expected to be a grueling legislative session. A soft economy makes it likely that the state will take in billions of dollars less than it needs just to maintain current services, forcing lawmakers and the governor to look at deep budget cuts over the next two years.
Driscoll said he’ll argue for protecting services to the state’s most vulnerable residents. Cutting those, he said, “can be penny-wise and pound foolish.”
Lawmakers are meeting at the Capitol this week to hash out plans for the session, which starts in January. Dozens of lobbyists, union members and others were already working the halls Thursday, trying to get their issues and programs are on legislators’ radar.
“I’m humbled and honored to be here,” Driscoll said. “It’s a whole different world.”