Democrats lay claim to lead

OLYMPIA – Democratic Party leaders claimed late Tuesday that gubernatorial candidate Christine Gregoire had picked up enough votes in the ballot recount in King County to wrest the statewide lead from Republican Dino Rossi.

Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirsten Brost said Gregoire held an eight-vote advantage based on their tracking of recount results. “We feel very good about these numbers,” she said. “We’ve checked, double-checked and triple-checked.”

Rossi spokeswoman Mary Lane did not confirm or dispute the Democrats’ claim.

“Our number crunchers are still at it,” she said. “We are not prepared to say anything definitively at this point. We don’t know.”

King County officials today will release the unofficial results of the county’s recount at 3:30 p.m. Meanwhile, the fate of 723 disputed ballots in King County is yet to be decided.

This morning, the state Supreme Court will consider whether King County should be allowed to count the ballots that election officials saod last week had been wrongly rejected. Tuesday night’s developments will ratchet up the emotions at today’s court hearing and formal release of the recount numbers.

If the Democrats’ analysis is right, it will be the first time that a hand recount has changed the result of a statewide election.

Rossi began Tuesday as the governor-elect. In what is the closest governor’s race in Washington history, he won the first count by 261 votes and won the machine recount by 42 votes. In the hand recount, he had picked up another seven votes.

But King County loomed as a threat to his tenuous lead. Gregoire won nearly 58 percent of the vote in the county on Nov. 2 and appeared certain to gain a majority of any new votes added during the recount.

Throughout the process in King County, election officials have provided the two political parties and the campaigns of Gregoire and Rossi with daily updates on votes counted and the breakdown of who is getting what.

Brost said the Democrats’ figures are based on numbers received through the end of the day Monday, plus their calculations of action on 320 votes in a canvassing board meeting on Tuesday.

Lane said Rossi had been gaining in the recount through Monday. “Today’s canvassing board made it much closer,” she said.

The legal showdown marks the second time in two weeks that the state Supreme Court has been hauled into the recount fray. Justices two weeks ago turned down a Democratic Party request for a blanket order to reconsider every ballot that had been tossed out in any county.

Republican Party lawyers, using that ruling, won a lower court order to block processing of the 723 King County ballots. They argued that state law and the Supreme Court’s Dec. 14 ruling do not allow canvassing boards to reconsider ballots they had already rejected.

The Democratic Party, King County and the secretary of state appealed, arguing in legal papers that justices acknowledged that state law includes a “safety valve” clause that gives canvassing boards discretion to correct mistakes such as those made with the contested 723 ballots.

The Supreme Court hearing begins at 9:30 a.m. in the Temple of Justice. It is open to the public, will be televised live on TVW and is also scheduled to air on C-Span2.

King County will release unofficial totals from its hand recount at 3:30 p.m. today, but final certification depends on the decision of the high court.

If justices rule for King County, the ballots in dispute will be processed and counted, said Bobbie Egan, spokeswoman for the King County elections department. If not, final action will be taken Thursday.

King County is laden with Democratic voters. Gregoire has won about 58 percent of the votes cast there to this point. If the recount increases the vote totals, she can expect to gain a majority of them.

Such potential is why the Democratic Party is fighting so fiercely to have the 723 ballots included.

The Secretary of State’s Office is fighting, too, but for a different principle. It wants the court to uphold the independence of the King County Canvassing Board to rule on the county’s ballots.

In legal papers, lawyers contend that if the state Supreme Court rejects the ballots, it would effectively override the authority of all canvassing boards. It also would force counties, including Snohomish, which found and counted ballots during this process, to undo those actions.

“Every election administrator wants the same rules enforced throughout the entirety of an election,” said Nick Handy, the state’s director of elections. “We don’t want to change the rules in the middle of the game. Canvassing boards believe they can make corrections and changes during the process. If the Supreme Court rules otherwise, we’ll honor and respect the decision.”

Other uncounted ballots also were found and added into the recount in Chelan, Kittitas, Pierce, Thurston and Whatcom counties.

Snohomish County election workers found 224 uncounted ballots in a tray during the November machine recount. The canvassing board unanimously agreed to include them in the vote.

County Auditor Bob Terwilliger said those ballots remain segregated from the other 200,737 mail-in ballots that were tallied in the hand recount. If those are subtracted, Rossi would lose 111 votes and Gregoire would lose 96.

Terwilliger said that he hopes the Supreme Court steers clear of an interpretation that would compel the county board to rescind its decision to count the discovered ballots. If the ballots make a difference, he said, then that might be grounds for revisiting the recount in the county or a formal contesting of the results.

“We don’t know if there is any impact in what we all did, because we don’t know what the results are yet,” he said.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield

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