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Don't Count Rossi Out
A stolen election in Washington state? Not if bloggers can help it.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Wall Street Journal

The new mediatalk radio, bloggers and independent watchdog groupshave followed up their success in exposing Dan Rather's use of phony memos by showcasing another scandal: Washington state's bizarre race for governor, which features a vote count so close and compromised it allows Florida to retire the crown for electoral incompetence. If Democrat Christine Gregoire, who leads by 129 votes and is scheduled to take the office Wednesday, eventually has to face a new election, it will have been in large part because of the new media's ability to give the story altitude before it reached the courts.

When the idea of a revote was first broached three weeks ago by a moderate Republican former secretary of state, Ms. Gregoire's reaction was swift: "Absolutely ludicrous." With Republican candidate Dino Rossi filing a formal court challenge last Friday alleging a massive breakdown in the vote count, she may still think the idea of a court-ordered revote is laughable, but her legal team is taking it seriously. "There's not even a 50-50 chance a court would rule with Republicans to set aside the election," says Jenny Durkan, a Gregoire confidant who is representing state Democrats. Hardly an expression of supreme confidence.

The feeling that a revote is possible is buoyed by polls showing the public still thinks Mr. Rossi, who won the first two vote counts before falling behind in the third, actually won. His legal team has also compiled a strong body of evidence showing irregularities, certainly one far more detailed than that which North Carolina officials used last week to order a statewide March revote of the race for agriculture commissioner after a computer ate 4,438 ballots in a GOP-leaning county. Without those votes, the GOP candidate was leading by 2,287 votes out of 3.5 million cast.


In Washington state, the errors by election officials have been compared to the antics of Inspector Clouseau, only clumsier. At least 1,200 more votes were counted in Seattle's King County than the number of individual voters who can be accounted for. Other counties saw similar, albeit smaller, excess vote totals. More than 300 military personnel who were sent their absentee ballots too late to return them have signed affidavits saying they intended to vote for Mr. Rossi. Some 1 out of 20 ballots in King County that officials felt were marked unclearly were "enhanced" with Wite-Out or pens so that some had their original markings obliterated.

Most disturbing is the revelation last week by King County officials that at least 348 unverified provisional ballots were fed directly into vote-counting machines. "Did it happen? Yes. Unfortunately, that's part of the process in King County," elections superintendent Bill Huennekens told the Seattle Times. "It's a very human process, and in some cases that did happen."

King County elections director Dean Logan, Mr. Huennekens' boss, also concedes the discrepancy between the number of ballots cast and the list of people who are recorded as voting. Even though the gap is 1,200 votes, he says, "that does not clearly indicate that the election would have turned out differently." Are voters supposed to trust an election merely because it can't "clearly" be shown to be hopelessly tainted? Mr. Logan is certainly singing a different tune now than he was on Nov. 18, when he responded to charges of voting irregularities in an e-mail to colleagues, which read in part: "Unfortunately, I have come to expect this kind of unsubstantiated crap. It's all too convenient, if not now fashionable, to stoop to this level when there is a close race."

Slade Gorton, a Republican former state attorney general and U.S. senator who is advising Mr. Rossi, says a court should order a revote rather than declare valid one of the two earlier vote counts that Mr. Rossi won. "No one can govern effectively under the cloud this race has created," Mr. Gorton says. He notes that state law doesn't require any showing of fraud to contest an election. "That is irrelevant to whether the election should be done over," he says. "The law is quite clear in giving a court the right to void any election where the number of illegal or mistaken votes exceeds the margin of victory, and it has done so in the past."

Mr. Gorton notes that Sam Reed, the Republican secretary of state who certified Ms. Gregoire's victory, issued a report in 2003 noting that King County's sloppy election procedures could lead to just this sort of election meltdown. "The county is not consistent in their ballot enhancement procedures," Mr. Reed's report concluded. "Ballot enhancement, while done in full view of political observers, did not use the procedures outlined in the Washington Administrative Code. Inconsistencies in how this procedure is handled significantly increase the possibility of a successful election contest."


Much of the evidence uncovered on King County's flouting of election laws first appeared on Soundpolitics.com, a blog run by computer consultant Stefan Sharkansky. A former liberal who worked for Michael Dukakis in 1988, Mr. Sharkansky calls himself a "9/11 conservative mugged by reality." He uses his knowledge of statistics and probability to illustrate how unlikely some of the reported vote count changes are. He also uncovered the fact that in Precinct 1823 in downtown Seattle, 527, or 70%, of the 763 registered voters used 500 Fourth Avenuethe King County administration buildingas their residential address. A full 61% of the precinct's voters only registered in the last year, and nearly all of them "live" at 500 Fourth Avenue. By contrast, only 13% of all of King County voters registered in 2004.

Not all of the voters at the county building are homeless or hard to find. A noted local judge and her husband have been registered at the county building for years. When I called her to ask why, she became flustered and said it was because of security concerns, specifically because "the Mexican mafia are out to get me." When I pointed out that her home address and phone number were easily found on the Internet and in property records, she ended the conversation by refusing to answer a question about whether she had improperly voted for state legislative candidates who would represent the county building but not her residence.

Even liberal officeholders in Seattle privately acknowledge that the combination of bloggers, talk radio and local think tanks like the Evergreen Freedom Foundation have helped skeptics of the election's validity win the public relations war. Evergreen president Bob Williams says his group isn't focused on overturning Ms. Gregoire's election so much as on highlighting the obvious problems in the vote count that cry out for permanent legislative fixes. He notes the public is paying attention: A poll taken last week by Seattle's KING-TV found that by a 20-point margin state residents back a new election, and by 53% to 36% they don't think Mr. Rossi should concede.

Seattle Times columnist Joni Balter says the attack on the vote count by Republican-leaning media "is by now a near-military operationair, land and sea." She blames radio hosts Kirby Wilbur, John Carlson and Mike Siegel for keeping listeners d and in a constant state of outrage. "There's a lot to be outraged about," responds Mr. Carlson, an unsuccessful candidate for governor in 2000. "Last week, I did 13 out of my show's 15 hours on the election and people wanted more."

In his new book, "Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation," radio host and law professor Hugh Hewitt calls the new media a form of "open-source journalism" in which gatekeepers can no longer control what reaches the public. Readers and listeners interact with bloggers and talk show hosts so that a free market of ideas and information can emerge. "Blogs analyzed the Washington state election shenanigans in a more sophisticated and comprehensive way than the mainstream media," he told me. "When a swarm of blogs and new media focus on a story it can fundamentally alter the general public's understanding of an event or person. Ask John Kerry, Trent Lott, Tom Daschle and soon-to-retire CBS anchor Dan Rather if they think the new media changed people's perceptions of them."


Similarly, when Christine Gregoire takes the oath of office as governor on Wednesday, she will still face a threat to her seat of power should the new media keep up the pressure and more evidence of a tainted vote count emerges in court.

She would do well to recall what happened in Minnesota after the 1962 election for governor there. Republican Elmer Anderson won a squeaker and was sworn in, but a recount of disputed ballots ground on. A hundred days into Mr. Anderson's term, a panel of three state judges ruled that Democrat Karl Rolvaag had actually won by 91 votes. To end the legal wrangling, Mr. Anderson ped any appeals and calmly left office, allowing Mr. Rolvaag to move into the governor's mansion.

You can expect the new media to talk up that historical example a lot as they seek to instill in the public's mind the belief that Washington state's election for governor isn't over just because after Wednesday someone occupies the office.


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