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Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - Page updated at 02:49 P.M.

Governor's race in turmoil

By Ralph Thomas, Keith Ervin and Christine Clarridge
Seattle Times staff reporters

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Today, at long last, Democrat Christine Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi are supposed to find out which one will become Washington's next governor. At least that's the theory.

What they will find out this afternoon, when the counties are required by law to finish counting ballots and certify their results, is who won the most votes. But a mandatory recount is almost certain, so the outcome probably won't be official until at least next week. And before either candidate is declared a winner, they may have to survive legal challenges to the result.

As of this morning, Rossi lead by just a few dozen votes over Gregoire. In other words, after nearly 2.8 million votes have been tallied, the race is a virtual tie.

About 6,100 ballots remain to be counted today; more than half are in counties where Rossi is leading.

Secretary of State Sam Reed has already announced a news conference for later today to discuss plans for a recount, which is required if the difference is less than one-half of 1 percent and less than 2,000 votes. The recount must be done by hand if the difference is less than 150 votes, unless the candidates agree to another method.

No statewide race has ever gone to a hand recount.

There were two new twists yesterday, both of them favoring Gregoire, in what could become the closest governor's race in state history — if not one of the most bizarre.

King County Superior Court Judge Dean Lum, bemoaning that the state had reached the "dreaded" point where courts were being asked to "micromanage the election," ruled that the county must count hundreds of provisional ballots that were being challenged by the Republican Party.
 
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Meanwhile, election officials in Grays Harbor County announced it was recounting all of its ballots because some votes had been counted twice. The recount cost Rossi hundreds of votes.

To many Republicans, who have not elected a governor in 24 years, the news seemed too bad to be true.

"This is getting very ugly and I tell you there is tremendous suspicion out there about what is happening," said state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance.

King County controversy

The counting in King County, where around 30 percent of the voters live, has generated the most controversy.

The legal wrangling started last week when the state Democratic Party sued to get the names of more than 900 voters whose provisional ballots were going to be disqualified because their signatures didn't match those on their registration cards.

Provisional ballots are typically used when voters cast ballots outside their regular polling place, when there are uncertainties about voter eligibility and when voters did not receive a requested absentee ballot.

On Friday, Judge Lum agreed that the names ought to be released under the state public disclosure act.

Buoyed by that decision, Democrats turned in affidavits from more than 600 voters whose provisional ballot signatures did not match their signature on file with their voter registration.

So Republicans went to court themselves yesterday, arguing that counting the provisional ballots courted fraud and failed to recognize the special nature of provisional ballots.

"Provisional ballots are different from other absentee or other poll votes and must be granted additional scrutiny," said Republican attorney Diane Tebelius. "The signature on the ballot must match the signature on the registration card."

Democrats and county election officials argued that those who vote by provisional ballot deserve to have their votes counted the same as anyone else.

Voters are not required to either appear in person or bring identification when seeking to change their voter registration, a lawyer for the county's election division said.

Lum agreed, denying the Republican's request. But he was clearly uneasy about being in the election spotlight.

"We have arrived at the moment which all reasonable Washingtonians have dreaded for four years: the moment when the Court is asked to micromanage an election," Lum wrote in his decision.

"Everyone would agree that Court is not the proper place to decide an election, yet this has not stopped both Republicans and Democrats from rushing to Court at the last minute, seeking emergency restraining orders and injunctions, claiming all sorts of improprieties by the other side."

Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt said he was thrilled by Lum's decision. "And now I'm just going to sit on the edge of my seat and just watch the votes come in," he said.

The judge's ruling affects fewer than 700 votes, but that could easily be enough to change the outcome.

Lawsuit likely

With the race so tight, Rossi aides and Republican officials said they are likely to file suit today against Yakima County to force it to allow the GOP to submit affidavits from provisional voters there.

Vance said Yakima County Auditor Corky Mattingly, a Democrat, wouldn't accept those affidavits.

"The Democrats were allowed to do this in King County. We're not being allowed to do it in Yakima County," Vance said.

The Grays Harbor County recount was ordered after officials discovered they had miscounted some votes. Yesterday, they ran all their ballots through counting machines a second time.

Grays Harbor Auditor Vern Spatz, a Democrat, said officials took a closer look at his county's results after total turnout reached 93 percent — well above any other county in the state.

They discovered that computer disks used to transfer votes from counting machines to the central tabulator fed in some votes more than once.

In retrospect, Spatz said, he was surprised that no one outside his office looked at the inflated turnout numbers and said, "Gee, Vern, that doesn't look right."

But Rossi got some boosts yesterday when a few counties where he is leading, including Skagit and Walla Walla, tallied more than twice as many votes as expected.

And Rossi did slightly better in yesterday's counts than he has done previously in some of Gregoire's strongest counties, including King and Thurston.

State election officials say the Gregoire-Rossi duel could wind up being the closest governor's race in state history. They have researched back to 1920 and found no race that was decided by less than 1 percent.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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