A judge yesterday upheld the election of Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D), and her Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, ended his challenge after a seven-month legal battle over one of the closest votes in U.S. history.
Although Chelan County Superior Court Judge John Bridges found 1,678 votes that had been illegally cast -- many by felons -- he refused to subtract the vast majority from either candidate's total. Bridges, who found no evidence of fraud, said Republicans who challenged the count failed to prove those votes affected the outcome.
"Unless an election is clearly invalid, when the people have spoken, their verdict should not be disturbed by the courts," the judge said.
The ruling was applauded by Gregoire, a former state attorney general whose five months in the governor's mansion have been shadowed by uncertainty about her wafer-thin victory margin of 129 votes. "The state can finally move on," she said in a statement.
At a news conference later, Rossi said: "With today's decision, and because of the political makeup of the Washington State Supreme Court, which makes it almost impossible to overturn this ruling, I am ending the election contest."
Gregoire had been widely expected to win the November election, but the first mechanical vote count put Rossi ahead by 261 votes. A second count, also by machine, whittled his lead to 42 votes, a margin of barely more than one-thousandth of a percent of the 3 million votes cast.
The Republican secretary of state certified Rossi as governor-elect in early December. But, aided by an influx of cash left over from Sen. John F. Kerry's unsuccessful presidential campaign, the state's Democrats raised enough money for a statewide recount of the ballots by hand.
Rossi appeared to be leading through the first several days of the recount. But then the elections director in populous Seattle area King County -- a heavily Democratic section that is Gregoire's home base -- found more than 500 absentee ballots that had not been counted. Court battles raged back and forth about which ballots should have been disqualified, but with the final tally reached two days before Christmas, Gregoire was found to have won by 129 votes.
Rossi sued with the support of his party, arguing that the election had been stolen through stuffed ballot boxes, counting errors, and widespread voting in the names of felons or dead people. The case ended up in front of Bridges, a judge not known to have partisan alliances, who was appointed in 1988 by a Democratic governor to serve in a heavily Republican county. Rossi and his supporters hoped Bridges would either declare Rossi the winner or set the stage for a new election.
Although Bridges in his ruling found flaws in the state electoral system, he said there was no evidence of deliberate fraud or problems that could be pinned to partisan bias. He ordered the 1,678 tainted votes to be subtracted from the state's historic accounting of how many ballots had been cast. But the only ballots he subtracted from the major candidates were four he struck from Rossi's column, after Democrats presented depositions from those unauthorized voters saying they had voted for the Republican.
The decision, then, raised Gregoire's official margin to 133 votes.