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Monday, November 29, 2004 - Page updated at 05:52 P.M.
A governor by Christmas?
By Ralph Thomas
The closest gubernatorial race in Washington history just keeps getting closer and has thrust the state into what one party leader is calling the "Twilight Zone" of politics.
As things stand, with counties bracing for an unprecedented second recount, voters will probably not know until at least mid-December whether their new governor is Republican Dino Rossi or Democrat Christine Gregoire. Election officials are even starting to think about what to do if no winner is decided before inauguration day in January.
Yesterday, Rossi came out ahead for the second time after a statewide recount of nearly 3 million ballots was completed. But his lead over Gregoire had slipped from 261 votes after the initial count to just 42 votes.
The difference between Rossi and Gregoire is now less than 0.0015 percent 1,372,484 votes for Rossi, 1,372,442 votes for Gregoire. If this were a 100-yard dash, Rossi's lead would be slightly more than a millimeter.
She and her Democratic allies said they would ask for another recount, this time with the ballots counted by hand instead of machine. But they had not decided whether to request a statewide recount or just in selected counties. If a partial recount changed the election outcome, state law mandates a hand recount in the rest of the state.
"Some people have suggested that Senator Rossi and I stage a duel or flip a coin to break this tie," Gregoire said. "But I prefer to count every vote."
Rossi, who was on a Caribbean cruise with his family, didn't get the recount news until late in the day. But in a written statement, he urged Gregoire to concede.
Secretary of State Sam Reed said yesterday he and Gov. Gary Locke will certify Rossi's victory Tuesday. Gregoire and the Democrats will then have three days to request a recount.
After that, the state will be in uncharted territory.
Another thing to ponder: Rossi and Gregoire are just 42 votes away from a tie. It's an almost unimaginable scenario, but one that state election officials are starting to take more seriously.
Initially, they thought state law called for drawing lots or a coin toss.
But they have since come across an obscure provision of the state constitution that suggests, in case of a tie, the Legislature would cast the deciding vote.
"When they gave me these results, I must admit I was astonished," said Reed, who has been involved in running elections for more than 30 years.
No statewide race has been reversed by a recount, but none has been this close.
Reed said he expects to get an accurate and solid count back from the counties in a hand recount, but there's an inherent variability in election results, which he called "99.9 percent accurate."
When victory boils down to just a handful of ballots, "it's about like drawing a lot to decide who is governor," he said.
After the recount tally was announced yesterday, Republicans urged Gregoire to give up the race.
"A third count can't possibly be more accurate than the first two," said former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican. "It's time to get forward with the business of the state."
Four years ago, Gorton conceded defeat to Democratic challenger Maria Cantwell after she won the initial count and a recount. But Cantwell's eventual margin of 2,229 votes looks huge compared with Rossi's.
Gorton joined several other prominent Republicans including former Gov. Dan Evans and former Secretary of State Ralph Munro at a news conference outside Rossi's campaign headquarters in Bellevue.
J. Vander Stoep, chief of staff for Rossi's transition team, said if Rossi were down by 42 votes, he likely would have conceded.
Munro, who served 20 years as the state's top election official, cautioned that punch-card ballots used in several counties could make for a rerun of "hanging chads" and other problems seen in Florida in the 2000 election.
KVI-AM (570) radio's John Carlson, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2000, yesterday afternoon was giving phone numbers on the air for Gregoire's campaign and the state Democratic Party. Carlson urged listeners to call both and urge them to concede the election.
But Democrats urged Gregoire to not back down.
Former Gov. Booth Gardner, appearing with Gregoire at a news conference yesterday, said either Gregoire or Rossi would make a good governor, and he started yesterday planning to encourage Gregoire to concede.
"But I said if it were under 100 votes, which I didn't think would happen, I encouraged her to fight on," Gardner said.
Gregoire, with daughter Courtney by her side, said, "with nearly 3 million votes cast, there's 42 votes between us. That's a tied race."
She said if Rossi were behind by the same number of votes, he'd be saying the same thing.
Rossi, 45, is trying to become the first Republican elected governor since John Spellman in 1980. Rossi spent seven years in the state Senate before resigning last year to run for governor.
From the start, Gregoire was considered the heavy favorite to succeed Locke. Gregoire, 57, has served three terms as attorney general and gained national prominence for her role in the landmark settlement between the states and the tobacco industry.
Yesterday morning, Rossi was leading Gregoire by 361 votes, after picking up 60 votes in the recount, which started Saturday.
But most of Rossi's minuscule lead vanished yesterday when King County recounted nearly 1 million ballots. That count included nearly 1,000 ballots that weren't tallied in the initial count due to voter errors or ballot irregularities.
The campaign leading up to the Nov. 2 election was bruising, but much of the harshest fighting came in the three weeks since Election Day.
Both sides recently brought in national party lawyers and consultants to help oversee the recount. Both sides have raised allegations of ballot-counting errors and trotted out conspiracy theories accusing their opponents of trying to steal the election.
Republican leaders were angered by King County's handling of ballots that were rejected by the counting machines due to voter errors.
In many cases, election workers were trying to determine voter intent and then duplicating, or "enhancing," the ballots so they could be tallied.
The state Republican Party on Saturday filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to halt the recount in King County until the ballot dispute is resolved. The court refused to stop the recount but agreed to give the Republicans a hearing Tuesday.
State Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance said King County election workers were showing a pro-Gregoire bias in their handling of the disputed ballots.
Democrats responded by accusing the Republicans of trying to trample people's right to vote. And state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt suggested the Bush White House was behind it all.
"This is a Karl Rove-driven operation in this state," Berendt said earlier this week, referring to President Bush's chief political strategist. "We are not going to let the Washington, D.C., Republicans steal this election from Chris Gregoire."
Lawyers for the Democratic Party yesterday sent a letter to Reed urging him to investigate several irregularities, such as instances where precincts tallied more votes than they had registered voters and counties that discovered additional ballots after the original count.
Berendt said that he'd prefer to hand count the entire state but that financially it might not make sense, since a hand count would cost more than $700,000, or 25 cents a vote.
He said he's been talking to the Democratic National Committee but has received no pledge from the group to help pay for a recount. Gregoire said she had no money left in her campaign account.
"If it's a limited recount, don't assume we'll go to where Chris carries the strongest vote," Berendt said. "There were counties where there were anomalies. In Franklin and Adams counties, strange things happened."
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
Staff writers Andrew Garber, Jennifer Sullivan, Susan Gilmore, Keith Ervin, Jim Brunner and Emily Heffter contributed to this report.
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