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Every qualified vote should count
Elections officials in Washington's King County should have the discretion to review wrongly rejected ballots
Editorial The Portland Oregonian  Tuesday, December 21, 2004

I f you're having trouble making sense out of Washington state's messy gubernatorial vote recount, consider the case of Jack Oxford. The election's outcome may hinge on whether his vote is allowed to count.

Oxford, 50, is an electrical field supervisor from Enumclaw in King County near Seattle. Like most registered voters in Washington state, he voted by absentee ballot. And even though he says he did everything exactly right, his vote was not counted in the Nov. 2 election. Nor was it counted in the automatic recount by machine that followed.

Now, as a second recount by hand is under way, King County elections officials say Oxford's ballot is among 735 that were discovered to be mistakenly disqualified in the early counting. They say elections workers failed to follow county protocols and verify signatures against voter registration cards when computer records on these voters came up blank.

Those 735 ballots could be critical. As of Monday, with only King County left to report, Republican Gov.-elect Dino Rossi led Democrat Christine Gregoire by only 50 votes. And because Gregoire overwhelmingly carried King County in the original tallying, you can see why Republicans are fighting bitterly to keep the wrongly disqualified ballots from being counted. They almost certainly would undo Rossi's narrow victory.

So GOP leaders filed suit last week to bar King County from including the 735 ballots, and on Friday a Pierce County judge concurred. Democrats then appealed to the state's highest court, which is expected to rule by Thursday.

If recent legal history in Washington state is any indication, the Dems may be heading for disappointment. After the first recount in November, the party went to court demanding that ballots disqualified by canvassing boards in previous counting be reviewed again in the hand recount. The state Supreme Court ruled the other way, though, declaring that "ballots are to be 'retabulated' only if they have been previously counted or tallied."

Jack Oxford's mistakenly disqualified ballot has not "been previously counted or tallied." Does that mean his vote and those of 734 others like him in King County will remain uncounted? We'll soon know.

Meanwhile, lawyers for Secretary of State Sam Reed argue that state law gives counties discretion to review ballots that were wrongly rejected because of administrative mistakes.

That certainly makes the most sense. And if the state's high court finds that no such discretion is provided by law, Reed should make good on his pledge to seek election reform measures in the next legislative session.

Voter confidence is at stake. Faith in the democratic process by citizens such as Jack Oxford requires trust that every vote will count.

Instead, a self-described "distraught" Oxford joined a Sunday protest of the Pierce County ruling. He told reporters that the court's message appeared to be, "It's the right of every American citizen to have your vote counted except for yours, Jack."

Surely that's not the intent of Washington statutes. We hope the state's Supreme Court agrees.

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