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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Found’ ballots may tip election to Gregoire

Richard Roesler Staff writer

OLYMPIA – After weeks of trailing Gov.-elect Dino Rossi in Washington’s still ultra-close gubernatorial election, Democratic candidate Christine Gregoire got a big dose of good news Monday.

As Republican and Democratic lawyers prepared to argue before the state Supreme Court over the rules for this, the third count in the race, a buzz went through the courtroom. Election officials in King County – one of Gregoire’s strongest areas of support – incorrectly had disqualified 561 ballots.

“These are registered voters. They did everything they’re supposed to do,” said state elections director Nick Handy, sitting in the courtroom’s second row.

Normally, such an error in a county with nearly 900,000 ballots to count might prompt some embarrassing news coverage and a few after-the-fact procedural changes. But in this case, with Republican Rossi winning the last recount by just 42 votes, fixing that one error could reverse the race and land Gregoire in the governor’s seat.

Here’s how: If all those votes are ruled valid and they mirror the voting pattern in King County as a whole – 58 percent Gregoire, 40 percent Rossi – Gregoire would gain 98 more votes than Rossi.

As the news spread Monday, Republicans were angry – and worried.

“Once again, King County finds more votes. At some point, you start wondering whether it’s gross incompetence or blatant voter fraud,” said state GOP Chairman Chris Vance. “Obviously we’re unhappy … Somebody needs to lose their job over this.”

King County Elections Director Dean Logan – also in the crowd at the court hearing – said that the absentee ballots were rejected because there was no match in the county’s computers for the signatures on the ballot envelopes. In such cases, workers are supposed to pull the paper voter registration form and compare the signatures that way.

“These should have been set aside and manually checked,” he said.

In this case, however, workers just stuck the hundreds of ballots in a pile of rejected ballots. The error was discovered Sunday afternoon when one very politically minded voter – King County Councilman Larry Phillips – volunteered to track down people whose votes hadn’t been counted. He picked up a list and a map.

“I went through the first page or two, and No. 10 on the list was this very familiar guy: Lawrence R. Phillips,” he said. “That’s me.”

But Phillips had apparently done everything right. He’d voted, signed the envelope, put a stamp on it and mailed it in a week before the election.

“And valid ballots like mine were just dumped in with the (rejected) others,” he said. “We played by the rules. I think people like me will be justifiably furious if these votes are not counted.”

Logan said that the ballots will be reviewed Wednesday and those that are valid will be counted.

“We take full responsibility,” he said.

Vance said that Republican lawyers are researching what, if anything, can be done about the hundreds of new ballots.

“It just seems odd that this always seems to happen in King County,” said Rossi spokeswoman Mary Lane. “Nothing’s ever settled.”

Also unsettled Monday night was the Supreme Court case. Democrats, who say election workers made many mistakes in this election, want the court to order county election officers to reconsider thousands of ballots that had been ruled invalid. The Democratic Party says counties set different deadlines, used different standards to judge ballot validity, ignored voter complaints and did a poor job of telling voters how they could “fix” a ballot and ensure that it was counted.

“There have been mistakes made,” Democrat attorney David Burman told the court. And in this third count, he said, Democrats want those mistakes fixed.

“How are we ever going to get to finality in elections?” asked Justice Bobbe Bridge. “…Is every voter supposed to take a lawyer down to where they vote?”

Republicans say Democrats just want to change the rules of an election they’ve been losing.

“Your election law is not a blank coloring book to be filled in at the desire of a candidate because they don’t like the way an election is going,” said Mark Braden, an attorney for the Republicans. “… Do not change the rules now, in the middle of the process.”

Gregoire has kept her distance from the lawsuit. Unlike Rossi, she’s not named as a party in the suit, although it’s obviously aimed at helping her win the governorship. In a recent interview with The Spokesman-Review, she said she’d never even seen the court petition laying out the Democrats’ case.

Still, she said, she supports the lawsuit.

“What you have is a situation here where you have legitimate votes that have not been counted,” she said.

The three counts have stretched the race out well beyond the Nov. 2 Election Day, but Gregoire said that it’s more important to have the race settled authoritatively.

“This is a couple-of-week delay for four years of legitimacy,” she said. “We need to put this to rest. People need to believe and feel good about the election system of the state of Washington.

“Two years from now,” she predicted, “this delay will be completely forgotten.”