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Prolonged election reveals cracks in system


SEATTLE It just keeps getting weirder.

As the recount in the closest governor's race in Washington state history goes on and on and on, the questions keep mounting.

Even before King County discovered more uncounted ballots on Friday, and a judge blocked the county from counting them, the normally levelheaded former Secretary of State Ralph Munro suggested scrapping the recount and doing the whole election over.

Republican Dino Rossi won the election by 261 votes over Democrat Christine Gregoire, and won the machine recount by 42 votes out of 2.9 million ballots cast. The current hand recount - the last count allowed by law - could bring the total even closer or reverse the results.

"This is like the 500-year flood," said Washington State University political scientist Lance LeLoup. "It's beyond what you plan for."

And like a flood, the hand recount is revealing cracks in the foundation of Washington's election system.

The biggest problems have surfaced in King County, which discovered 745 uncounted ballots at the last minute. Most, 723, had been rejected because of mistakes made by county election staff. The fate of those ballots will likely rest in the hands of the state Supreme Court, but if they get added to the recount they could swing the election for Democrat Christine Gregoire.

Gregoire, 57, a three-term attorney general, went into the election favored to win against Republican real estate agent Rossi, 45, a former state senator.

But Rossi pulled off an upset - maybe. By Friday he was up eight net votes in the hand recount for a margin of 50. The final score will depend on what happens in King County, the state's largest with 900,000 ballots. County officials expect to complete their recount by Wednesday, although legal action could delay them.

Republican State Party Chairman Chris Vance said at first he couldn't tell whether King County's elections department was plagued by incompetence or fraud. But by the end of the week he was leaning strongly toward fraud.

"What are we supposed to believe, other than they will do whatever it takes to deliver the election for Christine Gregoire?" he asked.

The Republicans sued to stop King County from counting the newly discovered ballots, which weren't counted originally because of county mistakes in how the voters' signatures were scanned and how the ballots were sorted during the first count.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stephanie Arend agreed, citing the Supreme Court's ruling last week that a recount should be a retabulation of the votes already counted. Democrats promised an appeal, which could be heard by the high court early next week.

But King County Elections Director Dean Logan says it's fair, and legal, for the county to correct its mistakes and count all valid votes. He points to a state law - also cited by the Supreme Court - that allows county officials to recanvass the vote to correct discrepancies or inconsistencies in the count. He also says, contrary to some rumors, he is not an evil henchman plotting to steal the election for his overlords at the Democratic Party.

"We have been trying to stay true to election laws and rules and not be influenced or pulled off track by the interests of campaigns or political parties," said Logan, a soft-spoken man who tends to blush easily. "I do think in the end if you step back and examine what we've done in King County, we've stayed true to that."

Logan works for County Executive Ron Sims, a liberal Democrat. Before that he worked for Secretary of State Sam Reed, a moderate Republican. Logan was recruited to straighten out King County elections a year and a half ago, after a series of high-profile gaffes by previous directors.

As he faced a wall of TV cameras at a canvassing board meeting on Wednesday, Logan said he knew the job would be challenging.

"It has exceeded those expectations and then some," he said.

Reed said Logan has done good work in King County, but that it will take more time to fix the "deep problems" there.

One problem, Reed said, is that King County dragged its feet instead of responding to the rise of permanent absentee voting. About 60 percent of Washington voters mailed in their ballots in this election, a percentage that has steadily increased over the past decade. The shift to absentee voting meant county officials had to change from a precinct-based voting system to a more centralized operation designed to handle absentee ballots. Some successfully redeployed staff and resources, while others didn't and are paying for it now.

Reed and others hope this election will spur reforms. Still, he acknowledges, no election will ever be perfect. A 99.99 percent accuracy rate is usually good enough, but in this election the margin of victory happens to be smaller than the margin of error.

What does that mean for the next governor, whoever he or she may be? In the long run, experts say, this crazy election probably won't hurt the next governor's political legitimacy.

Just look at President Bush after the 2000 election. "He lost the popular vote, and six months later he's signing the second-biggest tax cut in history," said WSU political science professor LeLoup.

People have short memories, he said:

"The stuff that seems so unbelievable right now, that has people clutching their hearts and moaning that this is the end of life as we know it, a year down the line this will be a footnote in history."

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