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Friday, November 12, 2004 - Page updated at 11:48 A.M.
Governor race may end up in court
By Keith Ervin
Washington's tightly contested race for governor could end up in court.
State Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt said yesterday his party is "exploring all options," including suing King County for failing to let his party inspect a list of voters whose provisional ballots might be thrown out.
Provisional ballots are used when voters cast ballots outside their regular polling place or when there are uncertainties about someone's eligibility to vote. The thousands of provisional ballots left to count in King County could determine the outcome of the close gubernatorial race between Democrat Christine Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi.
So far, King County has found signature problems with more than 900 of the provisional ballots.
In a letter sent to King County officials yesterday, Berendt also accused Republican vote-count observers of intimidating and harassing King County election workers processing the provisional ballots.
State Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance denied that charge. And while county election officials were worried enough about the atmosphere to post a sheriff's deputy in the office where the ballots are being counted, Dean Logan, the director of records, elections and licensing services, called Berendt's claim "an overstatement."
The governor's race remains extraordinarily tight.
Nearly two-thirds of Washington's counties are scheduled to count more absentee and provisional ballots today. Statewide, the counties estimate they have more than 80,000 ballots left to count before next Wednesday's election certification deadline.
Berendt said his party is considering a lawsuit because King County has declined to release the names of provisional voters whose votes it doesn't plan to count.
Democrats want to contact those voters and encourage them to provide information to the county that could establish their eligibility to vote. Some other counties have released lists of those voters, Berendt said.
Democrats want every possible provisional ballot counted in pro-Gregoire King County, in part because many provisional voters are college students who are expected to vote for Gregoire.
"The bottom line is this," Berendt said: "The Rossi people seem to be able to chase their ballots in the Rossi counties, but the Democratic Party is being forbidden to chase our ballots in our counties due to rulings by local election officials."
Logan said the federal Help America Vote Act prohibits the county from releasing the names of provisional voters who failed to sign their ballot envelopes or whose signatures have been challenged by election workers. He said he has not been able to confirm that some counties are releasing provisional voters' names.
County officials have found signature problems with about 929 provisional ballots. Those ballots will be counted only if voters sign another form by 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. Each voter who cast a provisional ballot at a county polling place Nov. 2 was given an access number to check online or by phone whether the vote was counted.
Vance said he knows of no serious problems in the handling of provisional ballots in any county.
"If we thought that a county was truly doing something wrong or improper or illegal, we wouldn't hesitate to try to defend our rights in court," Vance said. "But I hope that this doesn't turn into Florida, where you start just getting sort of desperation lawsuits filed."
Based on recent trends in the vote count, Vance said, "The math is in our favor. ... The Democrats can add up columns, and they don't work for them unless there is a big shift in the provisional ballots, so clearly they're nervous."
King County estimates about 25,000 more ballots mostly provisional remain to be counted. That's just over 29 percent of the almost 85,000 votes yet to be counted statewide.
Dozens of election workers continued to pore over provisional ballots yesterday to determine whether voters were eligible and whether their ballot-envelope signatures matched signatures on their registration cards.
Tensions between Republican and Democratic observers have been high.
In his letter to Logan, Berendt accused Republican observers of attempting "to skew the election results in King County through harassment and intimidation of elections workers."
Berendt said as many as 12 Republican observers were in the room at a time, sometimes gathering around workers, looking at their computer screens and ballot envelopes, challenging signature matches, watching through binoculars and disregarding requests to stand back.
Vance said it was "flat-out not true" that some Republican observers were out of line.
"Our observers are complying with all procedures and regulations laid down by the King County staff," he said.
Election officials confirmed they had problems with some observers. A sheriff's deputy has been in the room where provisional ballots are screened since Tuesday at the request of those officials.
Officials said they insisted on keeping observers at a distance so workers wouldn't be distracted and so observers wouldn't see confidential information such as voters' date of birth.
Republican observer Amos Leviant of Bellevue said the observer process is irrelevant if observers can't get close enough to see what workers are doing.
"I think they are very defensive about us ... seeing what they are doing," Leviant said. "If I was them, I would say, 'Guys, feel free. Just don't talk to the guys and don't disturb them.' "
Logan is resisting both the Republicans' desire to see ballot-processing close up and the Democrats' wish to see a list of provisional voters. "What we need to be careful about is staying focused on the administration of the election, and not allowing either side to influence or to change the procedures that we would normally use to conduct the election," he said.
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or email@example.com. Seattle Times reporters Ralph Thomas and Steve Miletich contributed to this report.
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