Closest gubernatorial election in U.S. history decided by state judge

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

BELLEVUE, Wash. -- A judge Monday upheld Democrat Christine Gregoire's victory in last fall's governor's election, and defeated GOP candidate Dino Rossi said he would not appeal -- ending the legal fight over the closest gubernatorial race in U.S. history.

"With today's decision, and because of the political makeup of the Washington State Supreme Court, which makes it almost impossible to overturn this ruling, I am ending the election contest," Rossi said at his campaign headquarters in Bellevue.

A delighted Gregoire said "it's amazing that it's over. I am personally relieved. ... Now all that is over and we can just move on."

The election -- decided by an amazingly narrow margin of 129 votes out of 2.9 million cast -- included 1,678 illegally cast ballots, Chelan County Superior Court Judge John Bridges found.

But in a ruling issued in his Wenatchee courtroom, Bridges rejected GOP claims that the election was stolen through errors and fraud, and said Republicans had failed to prove that Rossi would have won had the illegal votes been disregarded.

"Unless an election is clearly invalid, when the people have spoken their verdict should not be disturbed by the courts," Bridges said. Nullifying the election, he said, would be "the ultimate act of judicial egotism and judicial activism."

The judge threw out only a few illegally cast votes, which raised Gregoire's margin of victory to 133.

Gregoire, who has held office for five months under a cloud of uncertainty, said earlier that she burst into tears upon learning of the judge's decision.

The Republicans were hoping the judge would nullify the election and then either declare Rossi the winner outright or open the way for a new election in the fall.

"I continue to believe that mounting this election challenge, and shining the lights on the various problems of our election system, was the right thing to do," Rossi said at a late afternoon news conference.

He added: "I'd like to wish Christine Gregoire and her family all the best over the next 3 1/2 years."

Rossi, a real estate agent and former state senator, was considered a long shot last November against Gregoire, who was Washington's attorney general.

Rossi won the first count by 261 votes, then watched his lead shrink to 42 in a machine recount. In a hand recount completed in late December, Gregoire was pronounced the winner by 129 votes -- the smallest margin of victory in percentage terms of any statewide election in the nation's history. Five days before Gregoire's inauguration, Rossi sued to contest the election.

Monday's ruling came after a two-week trial that turned over flaws and quirks in election departments around the state.

The Republicans argued that large numbers of votes were illegally cast by felons or cast in the names of dead people; that there were errors in the counting of ballots; and that there was stuffing of the ballot box and destruction of ballots. They concentrated their attacks on Seattle's heavily Democratic King County, the state's most populous.

While Republicans characterized the problems as "sinister," Democrats described them as innocent mistakes that happen in every county, in every election. They said the GOP lacked the clear and convincing proof needed to justify overturning the election.

In his ruling, Bridges said the GOP failed to make the case for any deliberate, widespread fraud. He rejected the GOP's argument that an analytical technique called "proportional deduction" showed that most of the illegal votes cast in the election went to Gregoire. He also held that even using Republicans' proposed analytical technique, Gregoire still won.

The judge found that the Republicans failed to prove that Gregoire received one illegal vote among those improperly cast. In fact, he said, the only "clear and convincing" evidence he saw was the statements of four felons who said they voted for Rossi and one who said he cast a ballot for a Libertarian candidate.

Bridges subtracted four votes from Rossi's total.

The judge agreed that the state's election system is flawed. But he said he was not the proper person to remedy those flaws.

"The voters are in a position to demand of their legislative and executive bodies that remedial measures be taken immediately," he said.

The legislature passed several election reform bills this year but left many others on the table.

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