SEATTLE, Dec. 22 -- It took three statewide counts and a ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court to do it, but Christine Gregoire, the Democratic candidate for governor, has taken a narrow -- and perhaps decisive -- lead in one of the closest statewide elections in U.S. history.
The state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that at least 573 previously disqualified absentee ballots -- potentially enough to swing the state's tightest election ever for Gregoire -- can be counted. The votes are from King County, which includes Seattle and is by far the largest and most strongly Democratic county in the state.
Hours after the court ruling, the King County elections office released recount figures showing that -- even without the disputed votes that the state's highest court will now allow counted -- Gregoire had picked up enough votes to give her an 10-vote statewide victory over Republican Dino Rossi.
It has been a remarkable turn of events.
After the Nov. 2 election, Gregoire, 57, a well-known three-term state attorney general who had been widely expected to win in this usually Democratic state, trailed by 261 votes of nearly 3 million votes cast.
After the first recount, she was 42 votes behind Rossi, a former state senator and wealthy real estate agent.
Preliminary results of the second recount, which was done by hand and that ended Wednesday with King County's tabulation of nearly 900,000 votes, gave Gregoire a 10-vote victory. In King County, which was the last county to tally ballots by hand, Gregoire picked up 59 votes. Before the county's vote came in, Rossi had held a 49-vote lead, which included seven votes he had picked up statewide during the hand recount.
If the more than 500 votes ruled valid by the state's high court swing for Gregoire at the same 58-to-40 rate as the rest of the votes in the King County did, she could pick up an extra 103 votes.
"This wasn't about who wins the race," Gregoire said after the court ruling. "It's about protecting these voters' sacred right to have their legitimate votes counted."
The results of the second recount have not yet been certified as official by the Washington secretary of state, and a lawyer for the state Republican Party said Wednesday that if Rossi does lose after the third and final recount, the party would contest the election before the state legislature, which is controlled by Democrats.
Republicans said Wednesday that the state Supreme Court has suddenly changed the rules for counting votes in the governor's race and that the party would urgently look across Washington state for ballots that were improperly disqualified.
"Now that the state Supreme Court has actually decided that this is a recanvassing -- not a recount -- we have a list of hundreds of Rossi voters across the state who, through no fault of their own, were disenfranchised," said Mary Lane of the Rossi campaign.
She said the Republican Party also has a growing list of military voters whose votes were disqualified.
"If the rules can change for the voters in King County," Lane said, "then it is only right that they be changed for everyone else, as well."
Since the evening of Nov. 2, when election returns revealed a race that was far closer than many people had thought possible, strategists from both parties have looked to King County as the place where the governor's race would be won or lost.
Last week it looked as though the GOP had an edge on preventing the count of previously disqualified ballots from King County.
A lower court judge ruled that the votes should not be counted. But over the weekend, an appeal of that ruling by state Democrats and the King County elections office was joined by Sam Reed, the Republican secretary of state.
In court Wednesday, a lawyer from Reed's office argued that state law allows for the county canvassing board to correct mistakes in counting ballots.
"It is essential to preserve the right of voters to vote," said Thomas Ahearne, a lawyer representing the secretary of state. He added that state law clearly says that "administrative errors by elections officials should be correctable."
A lawyer for the state Republican Party, Harry Korell, argued before the seven justices that "the time for addressing when invalid ballots are properly counted is not in the recount. . . . A recount is limited to a retabulation."
The court disagreed, in a 7 to 0 ruling, saying that King County elections officials had the authority and the responsibility to fix its administrative mistakes.