You'd almost think they were bars of gold bullion, but they are paper ballots that are kept padlocked in a wire cage, guarded by sheriff's deputies with guns, overseen by paid representatives of the Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian parties - presumably without guns - all of whom watch every twitch and tabulation of every election employee.
The scene inside a King County administration building here is an attempt to determine - once and for all - who won the governorship of Washington State, three weeks after the election.
Amid sack lunches, takeout pizza, and Thai food cartons, election officials in the state's most populous county are optically scanning paper ballots as part of a statewide recount. Out of more than 2.7 million votes cast, the margin between Republican Dino Rossi and Democrat Christine Gregoire was less than 270 votes in the most recent tabulation - and was changing hands almost by the hour.
It's probably not even worth saying who's ahead at the moment. Democracy, of course, isn't always as neat as an anchorman's hairdo. Twenty days after the election, more than a few races around the country remain undecided - including two statewide contests in North Carolina, a governor's race in Puerto Rico, the mayoral matchup in San Diego. Even President Bush's margin of victory in New Mexico remains undetermined.
But few undecided contests are as close, and emotional, as the still-unfolding election here in what could become a made-for-TV-movie called "The Washington State Governorship."
First Ms. Gregoire, the state attorney general, was ahead. Then Mr. Rossi, a state senator and former realtor, was out front. Through it all, Washingtonians are trying to figure out if all this uncertainty and recounting means democracy is working the way it should or if, somehow, the election process has blown a fuse again.
"Do I trust the recount?" wondered Dirk Hein, a Seattle acupuncturist. He shook his head quizzically. "I have no idea what the process is."
State officials think they do. In all 39 counties, local election officials have rolled up their sleeves and begun recounting ballots. Last Thursday, when some 2,742,567 votes were totaled for the first time, conservative Republican Rossi led liberal Democrat Gregoire by a scant 261 votes. Not only did the minuscule margin trigger an official machine recount, it raised trenchant questions in a year when electoral propriety and the divide between red states and blue are passionate national issues. Gregoire's campaign is already being scrutinized to explain how a front-runner came to be locked in a dead heat in a state that hasn't seen a Republican governor in 20 years.
All was still undecided as the recount of the closest statewide race in history here began Saturday, when 130 election workers in King County, the state's most populous, began the ritual on behalf of the democracy's credibility. Working from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., 45 people continuously work the optical scanners that read the paper ballots.
The remaining 38 counties began counting Monday. Only two of these, Snohomish and Yakima, employ the now infamous touch-screen machines. Most of the state's votes are hand marked and optically scanned. Cost of the recount, according to Joanie Nacke of the secretary of state's office, will only cost "a few thousand dollars."
"There are safeguards and policies to protect the right of the voters," Ms. Nacke says. "We've been doing provisional ballots since the '70s. A lot of states are just now learning how to use provisional ballots."
David Olson, political scientist at the University of Washington and an expert on electoral fraud, insists, "We're nowhere near an objective, nonpartisan election in America. The Help America Vote Act [passed in response to the 2000 presidential election] is the most feeble, fleeting attempt at voting reform."
Professor Olson decries states such as New Jersey, where he says "the graveyard still votes," as well as Florida and Ohio, where he points to precincts that counted more votes than registered voters as evidence of credibility deficits if not outright corruption. Yet, he adds, "The election process in Washington has been examined with a microscope and the elections are coming out pretty clean. There's been no skulduggery here - so it is possible to have clean elections in America."
More interesting, Olson says, is what the close vote says about Evergreen State politics: "It's not one-party dominant, like most states," he says. "Races in most states are a foregone conclusion. But here, you see these enormous swings: John Kerry carrying the state handily. Sen. Patty Murray carrying the state handily. But Dino Rossi essentially battling Chris Gregoire to a draw."
After a bitter, divisive campaign, the two candidates have been cautiously gracious. Even though Mr. Rossi began assembling his staff a week ago, which some saw as presumptuous, his 261-vote margin is nothing a banker would stake with a loan. In 2000, for instance, a recount was ordered in the US Senate race when Democrat Maria Cantwell held a 1,953-vote lead over Republican Sen. Slade Gorton.
When that recount concluded, Ms. Cantwell had picked up 177 votes and Mr. Gorton lost 99. This 276-vote swing came with 356,000 fewer total votes than were cast this year, so the possibility of a Governor Gregoire is far from implausible.
Phil Ager, a retired music professor who now builds furniture, says people in his north central Washington community have been silent about the recount, except to express amazement at the closeness of the vote. "People don't talk politics anymore, except with people they agree with. You don't talk about it in the café. There's just the hate letters in the papers," he says, adding, "It wasn't always that way."
"The language of the campaigns has escalated in a way that has sort of brought out the worst in people," says Mr. Ager, who lives in Winthrop, a village in the picturesque Methow Valley. "It's really divided communities - and families."
On Vashon Island, a Seattle suburb, Michael Meade sees the recount in mythic ways. An internationally renowned mythologist and storyteller, Mr. Meade says the recount provides only half an answer. "It's not simply whether your vote counts or doesn't; it's that it doesn't count enough," Meade argues. "Whenever a group is formed by a crisis, they either pull together or divide. And this culture is dividing."