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Tuesday, November 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Governor's race hand count would be inaccurate, unwise

By Daniel J. Evans
Special to The Times

KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
King County employees Gail Robertson, left foreground, and Janey Trytek, right foreground, recount votes for governor Nov. 20.
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Washington state has just completed the most accurate count of a statewide election in its 115-year history. That's the good news. The bad news is, Democrats may demand yet another recount. If that happens, the next recount will be less accurate, not more.

Why was the recent recount of the governor's race so accurate?

New procedures. Over the past four years, Washington state has adopted new, uniform rules that apply to all 39 counties, defining what is a vote and what is not. Also, the rules now require that all counties check all ballots by hand before they are run through the machines the first time. That's one reason the vote count changed so little (just 0.008 percent) between the first and second counts: In effect, we've combined a hand count with a machine count.

Better training. One of the lessons learned from Florida 2000 was the need to better train elections workers. The secretary of state raised the standards for training, and every county took part.

So it was accurate, but was it the best we can do? Yes. If we have to take the next step, it will be toward chaos, not clarity, for two reasons.

First, with the advances in our procedures and training, the system we just used (combination hand/machine count) is more accurate than a pure hand count would be. But, if we are forced to endure a third count, then the state law, based as it is on outdated concepts, requires the next count to be a hand count. With a pure hand count, we lose the main thing computers do better than humans — count.

As King County elections director Dean Logan, a Democrat, said the other day of a possible hand count in his county, "When you're talking about close to 900,000 pieces of paper, I think the machine count is going to be more accurate than a manual count."

Simply put, a hand count will produce more errors.

To add insult to injury, taxpayers will likely get stuck with a $700,000 bill for this inaccurate recount. Why? While Democrats must pay for recounts in their chosen counties, if those select recounts put Gregoire ahead, state law requires a statewide recount at taxpayer expense.

The second reason not to do another recount: lawyers.

It's time to be honest about this. The point of challenging the outcome is not about proving the truth; it's about finding a way to change the result. If Christine Gregoire did not believe there was a chance that challenging the results would change the outcome, she wouldn't do it.

The unpleasant truth is, a pure hand count subjects the whole process to more second-guessing, more trips to the courthouse, and more judges acting as elections officials. In a close race, if lawyers can cherry-pick the right precincts or counties, pick the right judges, challenge enough ballots and change enough votes, the result could be changed. Remember, it would only take a little more than one vote changed per county.

In fact, both sides have raised questions about whether mistakes have already been made somewhere. I think when all is said and done, it will be clear that what few mistakes were made in the first round were corrected in the second. Hearing the Democratic Party chairman hyperventilate about so many perceived missteps in the count reminds me of the Wizard of Oz calling, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

The truth is, every legitimate vote has been counted, by the most accurate means we possess. In this close a contest — and this is exactly the point of those who want another round — lawyers and judges decide the election, not voters. It'll be hanging chads all over again, only with moss.

And so, this situation comes down to an odd but clear choice: Whom do you trust more to tabulate the will of the voters — impartial machines, or a contest of cunning and aggression between battalions of lawyers?

Ironically, in the recount just completed, judges granted every Democrat request that sought to gain some advantage. For example, Democrats won the right to change the rules in some counties — but not others — on how to determine a legitimate ballot. And while that undoubtedly created unfairness across the state, it did not, in the end, change the outcome. Dino Rossi won both times.

It is tough to lose a close election. But a 42-vote margin, or even one vote, is not a tie. It's a decision. It is time to let Gov.-elect Rossi get on with a tough job.

Republican Daniel J. Evans is a former U.S. senator and three-term governor of the state of Washington.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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