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Thursday, November 18, 2004 - Page updated at 09:08 A.M.
It's Rossi by 261; recount is next
By Seattle Times staff
Republican Dino Rossi, whose call for a change of leadership in Olympia struck a chord with voters, yesterday came out on top of Washington's closest-ever race for governor.
When the vote count finally wrapped up last night, more than two weeks after Election Day, Rossi's margin was a mere 261 votes over Democratic Attorney General Christine Gregoire, triggering a mandatory statewide recount that begins this weekend.
Of the more than 2.8 million votes tallied, Rossi won 1,371,414 (48.88 percent) compared to 1,371,153 (48.87 percent) for Gregoire.
With a lead that microscopic, Rossi wasn't declaring victory and Gregoire wasn't conceding defeat.
"Frankly, my experience is ... if you're within a few hundred votes, we still don't know who is going to win the race because that many votes can easily shift," said Secretary of State Sam Reed.
In an election that has seen more than its share of controversy, Reed said he won't be surprised if one side or both file lawsuits to try to influence the final result.
Minutes after the final vote was posted yesterday, Rossi was beaming during a brief appearance at his campaign headquarters in Bellevue. He thanked his supporters for their help, especially during the last few seesaw weeks of absentee ballot counting.
"Making history isn't easy," Rossi said. "It certainly isn't timely either."
Rossi, 45, has spent most of his career in the commercial real-
estate business. He was elected to the state Senate in 1996 and served nearly two terms before stepping down last fall to run for governor.
Prior to that, Rossi was best known for his work last year on the state budget. As chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, he was instrumental in helping close a record $2.7 billion shortfall.
But Gregoire, 57, was sounding just as upbeat.
In fact, even as television stations were flashing "Rossi wins" graphics on the screen, Gregoire introduced her transition-team director, Jim Jesernig, to a crowd of supporters at Seattle's Town Hall. Calling the election a "virtual tie," she said, "We're going to make sure ... every single vote counts."
Gregoire also called for changing state election law to provide speedier vote tallies. Washington is one of only two states that allow voters to mail absentee ballots as late as Election Day.
"I clearly believe we should be ready with absentees to be counted on the day of the election," Gregoire said.
The past two weeks have been an emotional roller-coaster for both campaigns.
Rossi held a slight lead the morning after the election, but fell behind in the early absentee ballot counting.
The lead has gone back and forth ever since.
After trailing most of last week, Gregoire surged ahead on Monday after King County discovered it had 10,000 more uncounted ballots than previously projected.
Rossi and the Republicans got more bad news on Tuesday, when Grays Harbor County officials found some errors in their vote tabulation and decided to recount all the county's ballots. Rossi lost hundreds of votes in the recount.
Still, Rossi regained the lead and, heading into yesterday's final count, was ahead by 19 votes. Volunteers at Rossi's headquarters yesterday showed their confidence, answering the phone "soon to be governor Rossi's office."
For political junkies across the state, yesterday's final vote tally unfolded like an online horse race.
Counties began reporting their numbers in the morning and, as the new totals popped up on the state's election Web site, Rossi's lead grew steadily to more than 400 votes by late afternoon.
But Gregoire jumped back ahead by about 40 votes after King County, her biggest stronghold, reported its final count of nearly 1,400.
At the Gregoire headquarters in Fremont, campaign workers let out a high-pitched cheer as the King County update was posted.
But the lead flipped two more times later that afternoon.
Just before 6:30, a loud cheer went up at Rossi headquarters in Bellevue as a call came in from Benton County, the last to report its results. Rossi hugged his wife and hoisted his youngest daughter in his arms as volunteers and campaign workers high-fived one another, joking that they'd worked about 230 votes too hard.
In addition to being the closest Washington governor's race, it was the most expensive. Gregoire and Rossi together had raised more than $12 million in direct donations more than double the previous record. On top of that, special-interest groups most of them from out of state spent more than $6 million on the race.
The race was also a big factor in generating one of the highest voter turnouts on record. After yesterday's final tally, the statewide turnout stood at 82.13 percent not far off the all-time record of 84.5 percent in 1944.
Rossi wound up winning 31 of 39 counties. He won every county east of the Cascades and beat Gregoire in several key Western Washington counties, including Pierce, Snohomish, Kitsap and Clark.
Prior to this election, the closest governor's race was in 1912, when Ernest Lister beat M.E. Hay by 622 votes, out of 318,359 cast. Back then, recounts weren't required.
At the request of Secretary of State Reed, counties across the state will soon start a machine recount of all gubernatorial votes.
The work is expected to start by this weekend. Reed said he's asked for all the ballots to be counted by Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving.
There have been six mandatory statewide recounts in the past 36 years. None of them have changed the outcome of an election, but twice, in 1968 and 2000, they have changed the final margin by more than the 261 votes that separate Rossi and Gregoire.
The closest contest for statewide office in recent history was the 2000 race between Slade Gorton and Maria Cantwell for the U.S. Senate. Cantwell won by 2,229 votes. The recount widened Cantwell's margin by 276 votes.
In 1968, Gorton defeated Democrat John McCutcheon for attorney general, and his margin increased 604 votes after a recount.
The final counts this week came down to provisional ballots and a smaller number of late-arriving absentee votes. Provisional ballots are typically used when voters go to polling places other than their own, their names don't show up in poll books, or they are absentee voters who instead vote at a polling place.
King County Elections said last night that 31,545 provisional ballots were issued in the county and 87 percent were validated, mush higher than the 78 percent validated in the 2000 election.
In King County, Democrats successfully sued to get the names of 929 provisional voters whose ballots were going to be disqualified because they lacked signatures or signatures didn't match those on file. The party then worked feverishly to obtain signed affidavits from 654 people so their votes could be counted.
On Tuesday, the Republican Party went to court to try to block those ballots from being tallied. King County Superior Court Judge Dean Lum rejected the Republican argument.
In the end, the Republicans took advantage of Lum's rulings as well. State Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance said his party collected affidavits from about 300 provisional voters statewide, including about 100 in King County.
This story was written by Ralph Thomas with reporting by Thomas, Andrew Garber, Keith Ervin, Jim Brunner and Mike Lindblom.
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
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