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Justices to hear case for blocking votes Wed.


The state Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday morning on the latest vote-counting dispute prompted by the closest governor's race in Washington history.
At issue are 573 ballots mistakenly rejected by the King County canvassing board and 162 ballots that apparently had been misplaced in that county.

The number of votes is just enough that it could tip the election in favor of Democrat Christine Gregoire, who trailed Republican governor-elect Dino Rossi by just 42 votes after the first recount, done by machine. A statewide hand count of ballots is under way and could wrap up Wednesday when King County, a Gregoire stronghold, is expected to finish its tally.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stephanie Arend on Friday granted the state Republican Party's request for a temporary restraining order preventing the tabulation of additional votes. Arend cited a recent Supreme Court ruling in declaring it was too late to consider the disputed ballots and that a recount includes only ballots previously tabulated.

The state Democratic Party, King County elections department and Secretary of State's Office all have appealed, contending state law does allow local elections boards, called canvassing boards, to fix errors.

"The principle we are standing on is the canvassing board does have the authority and even the responsibility if they detect something is wrong to go back and fix it before the count is finalized," Secretary of State Sam Reed, a Republican, said in an interview Monday.

"The canvassing boards are experienced, capable; they have good legal counsel. They can make decisions," Reed added.

But the issues could get tricky. Reed said not all of the disputed ballots fall into the same category. He said there might be instances where the voter, and not the county, made the errors that caused the ballots to be rejected earlier.

"I think there are nuances there," Reed said.

King County elections director Dean Logan has described the 573 ballots as absentees that lacked matching signatures on file in the county's electronic database. The ballots were set aside by elections staff to be checked against paper registration records, but instead were misfiled with ballots that had a signature mismatch, agency spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said last week.

Gregoire issued a news release Monday inviting Rossi to join the call to count all legitimate ballots.

"From day one, this has been about counting every legitimate ballot," Gregoire's office quoted her as saying. "I have said all along that once every legitimate ballot is counted, the race is over and I will accept the results whatever they are. It's time for Sen. Rossi to make the same promise. Let's count every valid vote and accept the results."

Muddying the waters was a state Republican Party news release issued Monday that cites a King County elections' staff report, which showed that 423 of the 573 voters with disputed ballots had been sent a letter asking them for an "d signature."

That staff report by county elections superintendent Bill Huennekens showed that signatures eventually were found for 240 of the 573 voters. Among those was King County Council Chairman Larry Phillips, whose discovery on Dec. 12 that his ballot hadn't been counted led to the detection of the 573-ballot error.

Huennekens' report also noted irregularities in past elections, including letting ballots be counted in a special election in May even though they lacked matching signatures in the electronic database.

Chris Vance, the Republican state chairman, said in a news release that the GOP has received "numerous accounts of Rossi voters including members of the military serving in Iraq whose votes weren't counted due to errors made by county auditors.

"The question must be asked," Vance said, "If we can't change the rules for brave men and women serving their country overseas, why should we change them for the chairman of the King County Council?"

A story unfolds

Washington's closest governor's race in history put Republican Dino Rossi ahead of Democrat Christine Gregoire by 261 votes in the first vote count after the Nov. 2 election. A machine recount completed just before Thanksgiving left Rossi ahead by 42 votes.

State Democrats put up money to pay for a third count a statewide manual tabulation of ballots which began two weeks ago and is complete in all but King County. In the meantime, the state Supreme Court rejected a Democratic Party request that all rejected ballots be reconsidered, saying that a recount allows only a count of ballots previously tabulated.

More recently, the King County canvassing board agreed to allow the counting of some 735 ballots that had been previously rejected or not counted. The earlier rejection of 573 of those votes occurred because of election staffers' errors in placing the ballots in with ballots that had mismatched signatures; some 573 of the ballots could not be matched with electronic signatures on file, but were supposed to be checked again against paper records.

On Friday, at the request of the state Republican Party, a Pierce County Superior Court judge issued a restraining order declaring that the 730 ballots must not be counted. The judge cited the Supreme Court ruling on recounts, rejecting arguments by the Secretary of State's Office, state Democrats and others that state law does allow a canvassing board to add ballots to a recount to correct mistakes in previous determinations of a ballot's validity.

As the legal questions swirl around the election, former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, a Republican, has suggested a new election might be needed so that voters can feel more certain of the winner. State lawmakers or a court would have to order such a revote.

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