SEATTLE — In what may be their last hope of reclaiming an evaporated lead in the Washington governor’s race before turning to the courts, Republicans have asked county auditors statewide to reconsider ballots that were rejected on Election Day.
With the counting and re-counting finally exhausted Thursday, Democrat Christine Gregoire emerged as the victor by a mere 130 votes. The final tally: 1,373,171 votes for Gregoire; 1,373,041 for Republican Dino Rossi.
But Republicans have vowed to leave no stone unturned in the breathtakingly close race that has dragged on for nearly two months.
“I know many Washingtonians are hoping this will end soon, but I’m also sure that people across this state want a clean election and a legitimate governor-elect,” Rossi said after the final tally from a grueling hand count was announced Thursday. “At this point, we have neither.”
'The election is over'
Gregoire, introduced Thursday night as the “apparent governor-elect” by outgoing Democratic Gov. Gary Locke, is not declaring victory. But she urged Rossi to accept the results and move on.
“The election is over,” Gregoire said. “I hope we can move forward, unite our state and address the problems our state is facing.”
It remained to be seen whether any auditors would comply with Republicans’ request to retrace their steps. A few have said their canvassing boards would at least meet with Republican leaders, but most had already decided not to re-evaluate ballots they believe were properly rejected in the first place, elections officials said.
Failing that, it appears that Republicans — who have already been girding for a lawsuit — have a number of legal avenues to pursue. An election challenge could go to state courts or possibly to the state Legislature; experts disagree on what the law says. If the losing side alleges violations of the equal protection clause in the U.S. Constitution, the election could end up in federal court.
Rossi won the Election Day count by 261 votes and a subsequent machine recount by 42. Democrats paid for a hand recount, which put Gregoire up 10 votes; that lead widened to 130 after a state Supreme Court decision allowed 732 ballots to be reconsidered in King County, a Democratic stronghold. Those ballots had been mistakenly thrown out because of problems scanning signatures into a computer.
In light of the high court’s decision, Republicans want the secretary of state to delay certifying the election so they can seek reconsideration of rejected ballots in other counties.
Republicans: 'We will continue fighting'
On Thursday morning, Republicans submitted affidavits to King County elections officials from 96 people who voted for Rossi and believe their ballots were erroneously rejected because of signature problems. They say they have identified about 250 such voters statewide.
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“We believe Dino Rossi is the legitimate Governor-elect of the State of Washington and we will continue fighting to protect his election,” state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance said.
Dean Logan, King County’s elections director and one of three members on its canvassing board, said those ballots would not be re-evaluated, because they had been properly considered and rejected.
Most auditors statewide have decided not to reconsider ballots, said Corky Mattingly, Yakima County’s auditor and president of the Washington State Association of County Auditors. “This is the end,” Mattingly said. “You don’t just keep recertifying and recertifying.”
However, a few county auditors have said their county canvassing boards will at least meet with Republican leaders to discuss the possibility.
Republicans have also accused King County of failing to send absentee ballots to military voters or sending them too late. Logan said all absentee ballots were sent out on time.
“You will continue to hear accusations of fraud, of changing rules, of manufactured votes,” Logan said Thursday, addressing rumors flying on the Internet and talk radio. “I believe the record shows most of these allegations, if not all of them, are totally untrue.”
The King County canvassing board’s only Republican member agreed. Dan Satterberg, chief of staff for Republican King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, said the county election system has problems, but said, “I do not have any concerns about fraud. I think the people in charge here are very professional.”
Challenge seen as highly likely
The secretary of state is scheduled to certify the election on Dec. 30. After that, state law allows any registered voter to challenge election results.
Some experts, like Western Washington University political scientist Ken Hoover, said a challenge is all but certain; what’s not clear is on what grounds it might be mounted.
“In order to contest it they would have to prove fraud. In all the rhetoric ... I haven’t heard anyone indicate they have evidence that would stand up in court,” Hoover said.
Since Election Day, Gregoire has gone from favorite to underdog and back to favorite. A three-term state attorney general, Gregoire, 57, was viewed as the anointed successor to Locke. Rossi, 45, a real estate agent and former state senator, jumped into the race only after the GOP’s first three choices declined to run.
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