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In Washington State, Democrat Wins Race

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page A04

SEATTLE, Dec. 23 -- Seven weeks after voters went to the polls, Democrat Christine Gregoire won Washington state's astonishingly close governor's contest by 130 votes, according to results of the third and final count of nearly 3 million votes.

Gregoire, who narrowly trailed Republican Dino Rossi after the first two counts and had inched to an infinitesimal 10-vote lead this week, added 120 votes Thursday in King County, the state's largest and most reliably Democratic county. They came from a pile of 735 disputed ballots that the state Supreme Court had ruled on Wednesday must be counted.

King County officials, from left, Dwight Pelz, Dean Logan and Daniel Satterberg review a disputed ballot during the vote recount. (Ralph Radford -- AP)

King County was the last of 39 counties to certify results of the recount, which was done by hand and marked the end of the closest election in state history.

"The election is over," Gregoire said Thursday night, looking ebullient at a news conference. "I hope we can move forward."

The three-term state attorney general, however, declined to declare herself the winner until the results are certified next week by the Washington secretary of state. Gregoire, 57, said that Rossi, a former state senator and wealthy real estate agent, has not called her to concede the election and that she will leave it to him to decide "when that would be appropriate."

Republicans are refusing to concede the race.

"That isn't even on our radar screen right now," said Suzanne Tomlin, a spokeswoman for the party. "Dino won the first two counts. If we stick with it, we can work it out."

As part of an effort to tip the results back toward Rossi, Republicans say that they will be blanketing Washington in the coming week, searching out Rossi votes that were wrongly disqualified.

Republicans say Wednesday's court decision means county canvassing boards, which certify the validity of ballots, can now reconvene to consider ballots that were disqualified because of administrative errors. They said canvassing boards in two counties have agreed to reconvene next week.

"We think the Supreme Court ruling opened up a can of worms," said Mary Lane, spokeswoman for the Rossi campaign.

The state, however, cannot accept new votes from county canvassing boards once they have stopped and certified a recount, according to Nick Handy, state director of elections. He works for Sam Reed, the GOP secretary of state.

"We say the door closes once they certify," Handy said. "Clearly and firmly, we have advised the state's 39 counties not to reopen their canvassing and bring additional votes in."

By appealing to county election officials, Republicans now appear to be doing what Democrats tried and failed to do earlier this month, when they trailed in the vote.

Democrats asked the state Supreme Court to order the canvassing boards to meet and reconsider all disputed ballots using uniform standards. But the court unanimously rejected that request, saying that it could not establish new standards during a tight election.

The Supreme Court ruling that on Wednesday allowed the counting of disputed ballots in King County was narrowly written. It said that county elections officials could correct their administrative errors as part of a recount; it did not open the door to a broader reassessment of all disputed ballots.

The state constitution allows individual voters to contest the election up to Jan. 20. A contested election, the constitution says, would be "determined by the legislature subject to law."

What that means, however, is a subject of partisan dispute.

Democrats, who control both houses of the state legislature, argue that it means that state legislators can vote to approve or dismiss challenges to the election outcome -- a vote that would almost certainly guarantee that Gregoire would be the next governor.

But Republicans, and state elections officials, say an existing law on contested elections provides for a trial before a state judge.

Under that law, a judge can hear evidence on whether there are enough improper votes to change the outcome -- and then annul the vote or name a new winner.

Exactly how that would work is not known, Handy said, because it has never happened.

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