Washington Democrats sue over GOP moniker in governor’s race

OLYMPIA — The state Democratic Party is suing to get a Republican on the ballot.

In the latest twist of a bruising governor’s race, Democrats sued Secretary of State Sam Reed today, saying challenger Dino Rossi should be listed as a Republican instead of “prefers GOP party” on the November ballot.

The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court in Seattle, argues that “allowing Mr. Rossi to obscure his true party preference and affiliation directly violates the law, would mislead a substantial portion of the voting public and would breed cynicism and mistrust in our public institutions and, indeed, in our electoral process.”

The party is seeking an emergency temporary restraining order that would prevent ballot printing until the court makes a decision. A hearing on the request is scheduled Wednesday, Democratic spokesman Kelly Steele said.

Most ballots to military and overseas voters are mailed on Oct. 5, and remaining ballots in the state’s largely vote-by-mail election are mailed Oct. 17. Reed, a Republican, said his office is getting those ballots ready.

Some ballots already have been sent. Pierce County has printed all of its ballots and sent some to military members stationed on submarines or otherwise hard to reach, and some of those ballots already have returned with votes marked, secretary of state spokesman David Ammons said.

If a judge rules the “GOP” designation invalid, those ballots from military personnel could be considered invalid as well, Rossi spokeswoman Jill Strait said in a statement.

“This is the act of a desperate incumbent and lawyer seeking to win the election in court by invalidating votes cast for Dino Rossi,” Strait said.

Gregoire campaign spokesman Aaron Toso accused Rossi of “misleading voters by hiding the fact that he is a Republican in lockstep with George Bush.”

Rossi is locked in a tight rematch with Gov. Chris Gregoire, who beat him by 133 votes four years ago after three counts and a court challenge. Gregoire topped Rossi by 2 percentage points in the August primary, and polls show a very close race.

Under Washington’s new “top two” primary system, Rossi — like all other candidates for partisan office — was allowed to indicate his own party preference on the ballot.

Local polling has shown some voter confusion about the Republican nickname GOP, an abbreviation for Grand Old Party. Most recently, a survey by independent pollster Stuart Elway found Gregoire had a 10-point advantage over a “Republican” Rossi but a 4-point advantage when Rossi was listed as “prefers GOP party.”

Rossi filed as “prefers GOP party” in June, but state Democrats said they decided to file the lawsuit this week because of recent polls indicating the wording could have an impact on Election Day.

“It’s clear that Republican Dino Rossi’s deception and extraordinary efforts to hide his party affiliation could have an impact,” Steele said.

The state Democrats’ lawsuit argues that there are only two major political parties recognized under Washington law and that Reed, as the state’s top election officer, should not have allowed a nickname.

Rossi says he’s not trying to mislead anyone and is just sticking with the party tag he used on campaign material in 2004. He appeared on the ballot as a Republican that year, before the top two primary system was in effect.

“The bottom line is that Dino Rossi has very high name ID,” Strait said. “People know who he is and what he stands for. It’s ridiculous, this notion that he’s trying to hide who he is. He is a Republican.”

The top two primary was approved by voters in 2004 as Initiative 872. The top two vote getters advance to the general election, regardless of party.

To avoid legal battles over whether the state was interfering with political party nominating processes, the initiative allowed each candidate to indicate a political party preference that would on the primary election ballot and, if the candidate advanced, on the general election ballot as well.

State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz issued a statement saying Rossi “apparently doesn’t have the courage to be honest with voters voluntarily, and Sam Reed apparently doesn’t have the courage to stand up to his party’s gubernatorial candidate’s dishonest scheme to deceive Washingtonians on the ballot.”

Reed said that under the initiative, he doesn’t have any leeway.

“The initiative that created the top two primary said specifically that candidates can express their preference for any party,” Reed said. “We frankly don’t have control over that.”

The top two primary was used for the first time in August after being upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in March. The high court ruling declared that the top two system isn’t a nominating process, picking one Democrat and one Republican for the finals, but a winnowing or qualifying election.

Rossi and Gregoire easily advanced through the primary.

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