SEATTLE, Dec. 14 -- It seems implausible, but the implausibly tight Washington state governor's race is getting tighter.
At the beginning of the third count, this one by hand of nearly 3 million votes, Republican Dino Rossi, a self-made businessman, led Democrat Christine Gregoire, the state attorney general, by 42 votes. That margin, 0.0015 percent, makes the governor's contest one of the closest statewide races in U.S. history.
The hand count, which has been going on for a week, had slightly widened Rossi's lead until Monday, when the elections director in King County, which includes Seattle and is the state's largest county, discovered a potentially election-swinging foul-up.
Because of a data entry error, the official said, 561 absentee ballots had not been counted. If those votes swing for Gregoire at the same 58-40 rate as the rest of the votes in the strongly Democratic county did, Monday's find could give her as many as 101 new votes -- a relative landslide, given the closeness of the race.
As word of the find spread Monday, Democrats rejoiced while Republicans called their lawyers.
"Dino was gaining in the hand count; maybe that is why King County found so many votes," grumbled Chris Vance, chairman of the state Republican Party.
On Tuesday, though, momentum shifted again. In a unanimous decision, the Washington State Supreme Court turned down a Democratic Party demand that ballots tossed out by county officials before the first two counts should be included in the third hand count.
Democrats had argued that county election officials had not used uniform standards in deciding which absentee and provisional ballots should be disqualified. The court, however, said that it did not have the authority -- in the midst of a recount -- to order the state "to establish standards for the recanvassing of ballots previously rejected in this election."
It agreed that in King County -- Gregoire's base -- county officials had rejected a higher percentage of ballots than did other countries. But the court added, "The record before us does not establish the reason for this disparity."
The court's ruling, however, probably will not affect the 561 uncounted ballots. Those votes will be presented for verification Wednesday to the King County canvassing board, which is likely to rule them valid.
Republicans, though, may then challenge their validity in court, said Vance, the state party chairman.
"Our lawyers are looking into it, in light of the court decision today, and we are discussing our options," Vance said.
The hand count is expected to end next week, when King County reports its final numbers, which are widely expected to turn up at least a few more new votes for Gregoire.
As of Monday, Rossi's lead in the hand count had grown to 88 votes -- a margin that may well disappear, if the new King County votes are counted.