King County election officials yesterday admitted a major error in tallying votes in the governor's race that could reverse the results and make Christine Gregoire the winner in the hand recount now under way.
The discovery that 561 votes were improperly disqualified super-heated backers of Republican Dino Rossi, who for weeks have worried that King County, a Democratic stronghold, would find a way to give Gregoire the edge.
Republicans are now "absolutely convinced that King County is trying to steal this election," said Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance.
"There are Republicans urging us to organize mass protests, to take to the streets," Vance said. "At some point people's patience just runs out."
The King County news also infused a Supreme Court hearing on Democrats' attempt to force counties to reconsider thousands of rejected ballots statewide. All sides used King County's problems to bolster their arguments.
For Democrats, the discovery proved their argument that not all valid votes cast in the election have been counted.
For Republicans, it showed that counties can correct errors on their own — and don't need a court order to tell them how.
The King County error came to light Sunday when Larry Phillips, chairman of the Metropolitan King County Council, was looking over a list of voters from his neighborhood whose ballots had been disqualified.
Phillips spotted his own name on the list, prompting an investigation by King County elections workers that turned up 561 improperly disqualified ballots.
King County Elections Director Dean Logan said that when workers were verifying signatures on absentee ballots, they erroneously disqualified voters whose signatures hadn't been entered into a computer system.
Instead, Logan said, they should have double-checked with signatures on voters' registration cards on file with the county.
"We take full responsibility," Logan said. "An error has been made that has prevented valid ballots from being counted. We need to correct the error and count those votes."
Logan said he will ask the three-member King County Canvassing Board tomorrow to approve the counting of all wrongly disqualified ballots that pass a signature comparison. If some signatures don't match, those voters will be notified of the mismatch and given a chance to establish their identity.
Elsewhere in the state, Rossi got some good news yesterday when eight more counties reported results of the hand recount. As of last night, with the recount completed in 24 counties, Rossi had gained 46 votes — bringing his total lead to 88.
King County has already been a problem for Rossi, though.
The county is the state's largest and one of the most Democratic. Gregoire holds a nearly 60-40 advantage over Rossi there.
Last month, in the final days of the initial vote tally, Republicans were shocked to learn that King County was going to count thousands more ballots than it had originally forecast.
Rossi led by 261 votes after the first count. Then, during the machine recount, Rossi's lead withered to just 42 votes — largely because King County tallied nearly 1,000 ballots that weren't included in the initial count.
"It's either gross incompetence or vote fraud," Vance said. "I guess we should just keep expecting King County to find votes until they find enough."
Gregoire and the Democrats, meanwhile, welcomed the news that more votes would be counted in King County.
"We are hopeful, but we don't know how these ballots are going to break down," state Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirstin Brost said.
Election workers are investigating whether any other category of ballots was mishandled, but no problems have been found, Logan said.
Other people whose votes were disqualified because of signature problems during the initial vote count won't be reconsidered unless the state Supreme Court orders a review, Logan said.
The court could issue a decision as early as today after meeting in an unusual emergency session yesterday to hear arguments in a case filed by Democrats.
At the heart of the Democrats' argument is that all counties need to treat the recount the same, and that the standard used should be to reconsider all previously rejected ballots.
Attorneys for county election officials, Secretary of State Sam Reed, the Republican Party and Rossi argue that what Democrats want is a recanvass — going far beyond the scope of a recount.
Democratic Party attorney David Burman told the court that King County's errors show the need to require all counties to go through all ballots to ensure voters' right to equal protection under the constitution.
"Some voters would have their errors corrected, but voters with exactly the same errors in a different county would be denied the right to have that correction, and hence would be denied the right to vote," Burman told the justices.
Burman was grilled by Chief Justice Gerry Alexander. If Democrats want counties to reconsider all their rejected ballots, Alexander asked, why not reconsider all ballots found to be valid in the first two tallies?
"Is there something arguably unfair about that?" Alexander asked.
Burman said he didn't have evidence of votes improperly counted and that erring on the side of counting a vote does not pose the same constitutional problems as invalidating a ballot.
Alexander also seemed reluctant to make any sweeping assumptions about voting problems.
"How can we say this is a systemic problem ... without some fact-finding?" he said.
The attorney representing Reed's office told the court that the Legislature knew what it was doing in writing a law for a recount, not a recanvass, in case of a close election.
"The place to change the recount statute is the Legislature, not this court," Thomas Ahearn said. "And the time to change the recount statute is before the election, not in the middle of the ongoing recount.
"Refusing to rewrite our state's recount statute is not an equal-protection violation."
The attorney for the Republicans said Democrats were asking the court not just to rewrite the recount law, but to "reinvent Washington state's recount process."
"Your election law is not a blank coloring book to be filled at the desire of a candidate because they don't like the way a recount is going," Mark Braden said.
Attorneys for all sides said it is difficult to predict what the court will do based on questions from judges during oral arguments.
But several justices seemed reluctant to inject too much judicial power in the midst of a recount. The years since the disputed 2000 presidential election have brought more judicial scrutiny to elections; some judges appear concerned about what one legal commentator has called the increasing legalization of politics through litigation and court action in elections.
That seemed clear from an exchange between Burman and Justice Bobbe Bridge. Bridge asked him about the difference between recounting and recanvassing, and pointed out the problem if either side could continually ask for reconsideration of rejected ballots.
"How are we ever going to get finality in an election if that is the case?" Bridge asked.
Burman: "We are in favor of finality. But we are in favor of finality after it's done fully and fairly, accurately and civilly, and that is part of the manual-recount process."
Bridge: "Are voters supposed to take a lawyer now when they go to vote just to make sure everything" is done correctly?
Burman: "If they care enough, if they are worried enough about the errors, perhaps they should."
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