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Washington state's election challenge puts politics on trial

Sunday, May 22, 2005

WENATCHEE, Wash. -- In a nondescript courtroom in this small farming town, America's electoral system is about to stand trial.

The battle over Washington's contested governor's election touches on many of the questions that divide this country between rural and urban, Republican and Democrat, red and blue -- and echoes frustrations of the past two presidential elections.

Republican Dino Rossi is challenging Gov. Christine Gregoire's victory in the closest statewide election in national history, alleging widespread problems including illegal votes cast by felons and dead people.

The challenge goes to trial Monday, months after Gregoire was sworn in. Rossi won the first count and a machine recount, but the Democratic stronghold of Seattle pushed Gregoire to a 129-vote win in a final, hand recount of 2.9 million ballots.

In rural Washington, the complaint is pretty simple: They're tired of Seattle choosing their political leaders.

"Seattle is the tail that wags the dog in the state," complained Republican King County Councilman Steve Hammond, whose working-class, suburban district is a 20-minute drive from downtown Seattle. "There is a disenfranchised feeling out there."

Brew of suspicion

Add to those regional tensions the continuous parade of errors from the King County elections division -- officials acknowledged finding 94 uncounted ballots in boxes as recently as last month -- and you get a Republican brew of suspicion and resentment that resembles how Democrats felt after President Bush won the 2000 and 2004 elections.

"For me there is a distinct parallel. I felt we should have had a revote in Florida," said Josef Kunzler, a John Kerry supporter who voted for Rossi and describes himself as an ardent "Dinocrat."

The 23-year-old blogger hopes Washington can hold a new election that will stiffen the spines of voters nationwide -- both Democrats and Republicans.

"If we do get a revote, they can have hope," he said. "We can challenge this kind of garbage going on, we can crack down on voter fraud ... Stand up and draw the line."

Gregoire, a three-term state attorney general, was the anointed successor to popular two-term Democrat Gary Locke. But she struggled against Rossi -- a moderate Republican, former state senator and self-made real estate millionaire who charmed voters with a savvy campaign.

Gregoire won only eight of Washington's 39 counties when all the votes were counted, recounted by machine, and recounted again by hand. She was losing until Seattle counted its last votes -- the same thing that happened in 2000 when Sen. Maria Cantwell defeated Republican Slade Gorton.

In the trial, Republicans are alleging widespread problems in the election, including illegal votes cast by felons and dead people, and provisional ballots that were illegally tallied without being properly checked.

Rossi wants a new election, although most Washington residents don't. A March poll of 800 voters by a GOP consulting firm found that while 56 percent believed Rossi was the true winner, only 39 percent wanted a new election.

"It's old news," said Seattle environmental consultant Tim Syverson, a Democrat who almost voted for Rossi but settled on Gregoire. "We've kind of moved past the election. I think it would be completely disruptive."

Rossi acknowledges that many people want to move on. But he can't.

"I told my kids, sometimes the right thing to do isn't the easy thing to do. The easy thing to do would be to turn a blind eye to it," said Rossi. "It's really basic, and having a system you can have faith in is really the foundation of our democracy."

Gregoire, meanwhile, believes the trial will simply dredge up old bitterness.

"We're going to see more rhetoric, more accusations," Gregoire said. "I'm a person that lives by the law, and the law in the state of Washington says I'm governor."

Whoever loses will appeal to the state Supreme Court, which will make the final decision.

Rossi hopes the Supreme Court will hear the case in June and nullify the election, creating a vacancy in the governor's office that will be temporarily filled by Lieutenant Gov. Brad Owen. Then candidates will file in July, compete in a primary in September, and voters will chose a new governor in November.

That's an ambitious timetable, and perhaps an exhausting proposition for voters who just survived a messy election season.

"Everyone just wants it to go away at this point," said former Democratic Gov. Booth Gardner, a Gregoire supporter who appointed the trial judge deciding her fate.

If the state holds a new election this fall, "I think she'd win," Gardner said. "But I think it would be damn close, again."


On the Net:

Gregoire: http://www.governor.wa.gov

Rossi: http://www.dinorossi.com/


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