Giving new meaning to 'every vote counts'

The interminable race for Washington governor may hinge on whether 723 originally untallied votes count.

Cecily Kaplan is a mother of two, a program manager at a local synagogue, and what they call a perfect voter. She is proud of casting ballots in every election since 1976 because she adores this thing called democracy. But now she is angry.

Ms. Kaplan learned last week that she is one of 723 King County voters who cast valid ballots in the Nov. 2 election but whose vote has not yet been counted - and may never be. With Dino Rossi (R) leading Christine Gregoire (D) by just a handful of votes in the hand recount for the governorship, these absentee ballots have become 24-carat jewels coveted by both Democrats and Republicans.

"I spent a week with my ballot and my voter's guide, studying the issues," says Kaplan. "It's not an issue of who wins but if my vote counts."

Kaplan's pique is a reminder that more is at stake in one of the longest and closest gubernatorial elections in modern US history than just who will run the state next. It's also providing a visible and emotional test of the integrity of the voting system - and people's faith in it.

In virtually every election, of course, there are some lost or disputed ballots. A congressional study after the 2000 presidential election found that, in each of the 20 states it looked at, an average of 2.2 percent of ballots went uncounted.

But when the gap in the vote count is as filament-thin as it is here, such margins of error can make the difference between who sits in the governor's chair and who sits in the recliner at home.

A 49-vote margin

For now, the governor's race remains almost incomprehensibly close. Out of 2.9 million votes cast overall, Mr. Rossi, a former state senator, won the first tally by 261 votes. It was close enough to trigger an automatic machine recount, after which the Bellevue realtor's lead slipped to just 42 votes. Now, with 38 of the state's 39 counties reporting their hand recounts, his lead stands at 49, the tightest governor's race in state history.

Yet with some 900,000 votes still being counted in King County, which surrounds Seattle, Rossi's lead could easily evaporate. So the last thing the Republicans want is another 723 votes from one of the most liberal bastions in America.

"A recount is not a new election," says Chris Vance, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party. "It's not a chance to count ballots that were rejected in an earlier count. Yet that's what the Democrats are trying to do."

Indeed, the votes of Kaplan and her 722 so-far-disenfranchised fellow citizens were not among the ballots originally counted. They were set aside because election workers could not match the signatures on the ballots with voters' signatures on file. These probably would have remained invalid had not one of the ballots belonged to Larry Phillips, an elected Democrat on the King County Council. When he serendipitously learned his name was among the disqualified, he was aghast - and began making phone calls.

An elections supervisor told him the county had been scanning voters' signatures from cards to computers, and some of the signatures did not scan properly into the digital archives used to corroborate absentee ballots. When the county decided the problem was its mistake - not the voters' - and announced it would thus count these votes, the Republicans went to court. Last week, a judge in neighboring Pierce County granted a temporary restraining order preventing King County from counting these ballots. Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. the Washington State Supreme Court will hear the appeal. No one knows when that court will announce its decision.

Which could bring considerable disruption. The state legislature, for instance, is set to convene its 120-day session in January. If there is no governor until February or March, experts say the state could fall into legislative gridlock. Already, both parties are fighting over the proposed budget of outgoing Gov. Gary Locke.

What happens in case of vacancy

One clause in the state constitution declares that if no governor has been elected, the sitting governor stays on temporarily. Yet another clause seems to contradict that, appointing the lieutenant governor to the temporary post. And if either side appeals to the US Supreme Court, it could take months for a ruling.

Mr. Vance sees something amiss. He alleges the county's elections officials "made a decision not to count those votes" the first time, but now "are changing the rules because Larry Phillips complained."

Mr. Phillips counters that if a voter did his or her job right, and the election officials agree, then the ballot should count. He charges that the Republicans are doing the same thing they did in Florida in 2000, trying to stall decisions and confuse voters. "As a citizen, should I have to go into battle with the Republican National Committee, the state Republican Party, the state Republican Party boss, local elected Republicans, all the attorneys they hire, and the right wing shock-jock radio hosts - just to get my vote to count?" he asks.

One reason the dispute has attracted so much attention nationally is the importance placed on governorships. Not only is the balance of power between the Democrats and Republicans in statehouses and governors' mansions close, but states are now some of the prime innovators on key issues like welfare, healthcare, and tax policy. Moreover, four of the past five presidents were former governors. Since Watergate in particular, governors have become "more important," says Thad Beyle, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina.

The downside of winning

Still, whoever ends up winning here could be severely weakened. David Olson, a political scientist at the University of Washington, says the next governor will arrive with zero mandate, a $1.7 billion revenue shortfall, and the unforgiving contempt of the opposition party. "If I were a close personal friend of Dino Rossi, I'd want Chris Gregoire to win," says Professor Olson. "If I were a close personal friend of Chris Gregoire, I'd want Dino Rossi to win."

Many voters, for their part, just want the system to win. Robert Tenczar, a product manager at Microsoft, learned he was among the disenfranchised 723 when a friend saw his name on a list and e-mailed him. "I was upset. Mad. But even before I knew I was one of those whose votes weren't counted, I thought every vote should be counted," he says. "I voted for Rossi, but I really think that both sides should want all the votes counted. I was in the military, and we fought for that right."

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