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Originally published November 1, 2010 at 9:24 PM | Page modified November 2, 2010 at 9:48 AM

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Murray-Rossi recount? Parties ready to rumble

Both state parties have on standby lawyers who've worked on contentious recounts.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Imagine for a moment:

It is Nov. 5, and the very slim lead Dino Rossi had held since Election Day suddenly evaporates to an even more microscopic lead for Patty Murray.

Control of the U.S. Senate hangs in the balance. Fox's Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow are broadcasting live from King County Elections' Tukwila headquarters. Piles of rejected ballots are scrutinized by $500-an-hour lawyers as closely as the strike zone in the World Series.

And then lawsuits start flying.

That may sound like a nightmare, but plans are already under way in case it becomes a reality.

Both state parties have on standby lawyers who've worked on contentious recounts, including the seven-month dispute in 2004 of Rossi's razor-thin gubernatorial loss, and the nine-month recount of U.S. Sen. Al Franken's win in Minnesota. Teams of volunteers are ready to go door to door, hunting for voters whose ballots have been rejected.

And citing Franken's case, both parties are already raising money for recounts. The national Democrats, in fact, got permission from federal elections officials — way back in August — to spend money preparing for recounts, while the GOP is setting the stage for possible recounts at www.nomorefrankens.com.

Political parties and candidates aren't the only ones likely to fight hard in a recount. Campaigns for and against the statewide initiatives on this year's ballot have spent about $60 million to date, and likely would jump in if results are close.

The preparations may simply be diligent disaster planning, but extended recounts have a bruising legacy in Washington state, thanks to sloppy vote-counting in the 2004 governor's race. This year, conservative blogs and pundits are casting broad suspicion on the ability of Washington — and especially Democrat-leaning King County — to accurately count votes.

Washington's vote-by-mail system also means that hundreds of thousands of ballots may not even arrive at counting centers until after Election Day, delaying the outcome of close contests.

Last month, O'Reilly implied that corrupt vote-counting in King County and Chicago's Cook County required a GOP candidate to "win by four or five" points in order to "win by two." "I know how they go and it's not honest," O'Reilly said.

Nick Handy, elections director for the secretary of state, believes such statements are one reason callers to his office's voter hotline "are a little hotter and more aggressive than we'd see in a typical election season."

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The comments don't seem to take into account broad reforms — statewide and in King County — made after 2004. State GOP Chairman Luke Esser and Rossi himself like many of the reforms. But Rossi also said Republicans will be on guard.

"In '04 we just weren't as prepared as we know we need to be now," he said recently. "Just in case."

Fixing the problems

The 2004 recounts and subsequent legal challenge of the governor's race between Rossi and then-Attorney General Chris Gregoire spotlighted disturbing errors, including ballots illegally cast by felons and on behalf of the dead, as well as unaccounted-for ballots. The state political parties spent a combined $6 million on the case.

Rossi's attorneys alleged outright fraud in manipulating the outcome, but those allegations were dismissed by a Chelan County judge after a two-week trial.

In the fallout, voter rolls kept separately by all 39 counties were merged into a single database, allowing the Washington Secretary of State's Office to regularly check for duplicate voters, felons and deceased people who should be scrubbed from the rolls.

In King County, the locus of problems, elections director was made into an elected position. The current director, Sherril Huff, is a Democrat and former Kitsap County auditor. Huff hired as her elections superintendent a well-respected Republican auditor and CPA who was a witness for the GOP in Rossi's trial.

Twenty-three full-time staff positions were added, and new procedures were put in place to reduce the possibility of misplaced ballots.

In the 2008 general election, King County recorded two "discrepancies" — meaning two unaccounted-for ballots — among 757,000 votes, said Kim Van Ekstrom, a King County elections spokeswoman.

In the 2009 general election — the first all-vote-by-mail election in King County — there were no discrepancies, she said.

"Regardless of what you think of the past, we have an exceptional team and process in place that anyone can see and observe," she said.

Harry Korrell, one of Rossi's lawyers in 2004, said it appears some of the problems are resolved. But he said he's unsure, for example, how thoroughly the state's citizenship requirement to vote is enforced.

"If things go wrong, you'll see a lot of us," said Korrell, of the firm Davis Wright Tremaine. "I don't have a huge degree of confidence that all the problems have been resolved."

An "American ritual"

That skepticism is found throughout the conservative blogosphere.

On Rossi's Facebook page, one man says, "If the vote fraud machine in King County starts its usual shenanigans ... I expect you to defend our legitimate votes by fighting tooth and nail and NO CONCESSIONS."

By law, a recount is mandatory if two candidates are within one-half of 1 percent and 2,000 votes.

Current polls on the Murray-Rossi race put the candidates in a dead heat. The race is one of about five nationally that Republicans view as critical to retaking control of the Senate. Should it go to a recount, the most likely next step would focus on ballots rejected for a missing or mismatched signature.

Last week, in preparation for this, the Secretary of State's Office created a standard form that a voter can sign, attesting to his or her signature and allowing the vote to be counted. Either political party — or independent groups — can go door to door to get the form signed, a provision that Handy says causes some heartburn.

"We don't like the involvement of (independent groups)," he said. "We say it's a disfavored but legal practice."

Handy believes the election system is prepared to withstand an onslaught of scrutiny if the Murray-Rossi race — or any other contest on the ballots — turns out to be extremely close.

"The armies will show up, and we'll go into this new American ritual of a recount and litigation," he said. "The fact this happens is not a reflection on election administration. It's a reflection on where the American political process is."

Staff reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this report.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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