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Thursday, December 23, 2004 - Page updated at 01:10 P.M.

Gregoire leads by 10

Seattle Times staff reporters


Flanked by daughter Michelle and husband Mike, Christine Gregoire addresses cheering supporters yesterday at Seattle's Town Hall auditorium.

Dino Rossi's bid to become Washington's first Republican governor in two decades unraveled in a big way yesterday.

After winning the first two counts in the state's closest race ever, Rossi fell behind Democrat Christine Gregoire by 10 votes in what was supposed to be the final day of an unprecedented statewide manual recount.

And he could drop even more after the state Supreme Court yesterday rejected a Republican attempt to block King County from reconsidering more than 700 ballots that the county said had been mistakenly disqualified.

The county canvassing board will meet today to decide which of the disputed ballots will be counted.

The extra ballots in King County -- a Democratic stronghold -- are expected to favor Gregoire, and likely will hand her the "governor-elect" title that Rossi has worn for more than a month.

Gregoire said yesterday it was too early to claim victory. But she was sounding victorious in a press conference at Seattle's Town Hall auditorium.

"Keep the faith," she told cheering supporters. "The election process is working exactly as it should."

What's next

Today King County officials plan to decide the fate of 735 disputed ballots, then release a final tally for the manual recount. All other counties have already reported.

Possible future moves If Dino Rossi loses the manual recount, his supporters may try to get other counties to reconsider rejected ballots, even though other counties have finished their manual recounts. Another avenue open to the loser of the recount is the state's election contest law, which allows a candidate to go to court after the votes are counted to bring charges of misconduct or other irregularities.

Rossi and the Republicans vowed to fight on. They talked of contesting the results in court or pressing county auditors around the state to reconsider disqualified ballots from Republican voters.

"This is the election without end," said state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance. "This is the election without rules."

Rossi spokeswoman Mary Lane pointed out that after Gregoire lost the first two counts by narrow margins, she called the race a "tie."

"We're not going to call this a tie but it is extremely close. It's certainly too close to call and Dino is not conceding," Lane said. "This election is not over."

The Supreme Court yesterday unanimously ruled that during a recount, counties have the power to reconsider previously rejected ballots.

The ruling allows King County today to count some, if not most, of the 735 ballots that election workers improperly rejected because they failed to find matching signatures in county files. The county expects to finish counting and report its final returns this afternoon.

What happens after that is not clear. At yesterday's court hearing, justices and lawyers made reference to the state law that allows elections to be contested in a court trial where evidence of fraud or legal error can be heard. The law allows election results to be set aside, and new elections ordered, under certain circumstances.

"Someone will decide to contest it," the Republican Party's attorney, Harry Korrell, told the Supreme Court yesterday. "I think that is almost unavoidable regardless of what this court does."

He said a contest would allow for an adversarial process where evidence would be presented and witnesses cross-examined.

The entire premise of the Republican case appeared to be an argument setting the stage for a contested election.

"There is certainly a huge difference between being declared the winner of an election and defending that, and being declared the loser of an election and having to then bring an election contest," Korrell told the court.

Secretary of State Sam Reed said he, too, expects the loser to contest the election.

But he says the race should end when the votes have been recounted, even if the final margin gives little comfort to the loser.

"The way this ought to be resolved is the person who gets the most votes wins," he said. "I recognize it's close. But that is the way it is in elections. That is the way it is in athletics. In a marathon sometimes somebody wins by only one or two steps. ... But they won."

Rossi won the Nov. 2 election by 261 votes, which triggered an automatic statewide machine recount. After Rossi won that recount by just 42 votes, the state Democratic Party requested a third count -- this time by hand.

For the first week of the manual recount, Rossi gained votes in most of the state's smaller counties and at one point was ahead by more than 120 votes.

But Gregoire charged back late last week, picking up 43 votes on Rossi in Snohomish County and 31 in Pierce County.

She overtook Rossi yesterday when King County -- the last to complete the manual recount -- reported she had gained 47 votes, while Rossi had lost 12.

King County elections director Dean Logan said Gregoire may have benefited from ballots on which voters wrote her name as a write-in but failed to fill in any bubble, Logan said. Machines disqualified those ballots, but the manual count gave them to Gregoire.

Statewide, the vote difference between Gregoire and Rossi is now 0.00036 percent.

If Gregoire's lead holds, Democrats will get back the $730,000 they posted to cover the cost of the manual recount, and the state will have to pick up the bill.

Republicans tried to stop King County from acting on the disputed ballots by saying the canvassing board had already acted, and that the law prohibits "recanvassing" during a recount.

But the court said Republicans read the law too narrowly, saying the King County problem was "just the sort of apparent discrepancy or inconsistency that the board can correct."

The court also said Republicans had provided "no facts" to support their assertion that the security of the disputed ballots had been compromised.

County election officials discovered the problem last week after Democratic King County Councilman Larry Phillips found his name on a list of rejected ballots.

His was one of hundreds of ballots disqualified because those voters' signatures were not found in the county's computerized voter-registration files, and election workers did not follow guidelines to search for a match in paper files.

"It would be fundamentally unfair," Korrell said in court, "to allow one county -- because the county got a call from a county councilman who was angry that his vote didn't get counted -- to go back and revisit a bunch of decisions when all of the other counties in the state have understood these provisions to prohibit recanvassing," he said.

Thomas Ahearne, an attorney representing Reed's office, said voters should not be punished because of King County's errors.

"Nobody is proud of the fact that mistakes have been made in the original count and the machine recount," he told the court. "But we should all be proud that we have a system that allows those mistakes to be corrected."

King County Executive Ron Sims, a Democrat, said the ruling reinforced the state's process for running elections and correcting mistakes.

"For us, this hand recount hasn't been about partisan politics; this has been about having a process that assures every eligible vote is counted," Sims said in a statement.

After searching county and state records for the past week, election officials said they had located valid voter-registration signatures for about 600 of the disputed ballots. For the votes to count, the signature on the ballot has to match the voter-registration signature.

Vance said the Republicans have a list of 500 people statewide, including about 260 who have signed affidavits, who voted for Rossi but contend their ballots were wrongly rejected due to signature problems.

In light of yesterday's court ruling, he said the party will press county auditors across the state to reconsider those ballots.

"Now, we're with the Democrats," said Vance. "Let's count every vote -- everywhere, not just in King County."

A few county auditors said yesterday they weren't sure how to proceed if Republicans push to bring back rejected ballots.

Lewis County Auditor Gary Zandell said he would leave it to the county's lawyers.

"I don't know what it means," said Zandell, a Republican. "We're in uncharted waters, and there's lots of rocks out there."

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or Times staff reporter Keith Ervin contributed to this report.

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