Monday, May 02, 2005

Suit reheats Washington election debate

Suit reheats Wash. election debate
By Laura Parker, USA TODAY

WENATCHEE, Wash. — The Chelan County Courthouse is a three-hour drive and mountain range away from all those liberals in Seattle who keep Washington on the blue-state side of the political ledger.

Despite the remote locale, this conservative community soon will be the site of a historic court battle to determine who won Washington's governor's race in the fall.

Democrat Christine Gregoire took office in January, after a third count of 2.8 million ballots overturned two previous counts that gave the election to Republican Dino Rossi.

But the Republican Party is suing to have the election, the closest in state history, set aside. The suit claims that so many illegal ballots ended up in the final count that Gregoire's whisker-thin, 129-vote margin would disappear if those ballots were discarded. The trial is scheduled to begin May 23.

In a hearing Monday, the judge will consider how to assess ballots cast by felons, as well as provisional ballots that were counted without being validated beforehand.

In filing the lawsuit in Chelan County, where not a single Democrat holds an elective office, GOP lawyers were looking for a more receptive ear — somewhere other than King County, where Seattle is.

"The Republicans decided to mainly get out of King County to make sure they have a fair chance," says Clyde Ballard of East Wenatchee, a former GOP speaker of the state House.

A state divided

The Republican Party's choice of counties, which voted 63% for Rossi, underscores the deep divisions in state politics. Eastern Washington is fruit orchards, wheat fields and sagebrush. Residents here have more in common with Idaho next door than they do with the urban counties that surround more Democratic Seattle near the Cascade Range.

This spring, the state Senate took up a favorite of eastern Washington lawmakers — seceding and establishing the 20 eastern counties, which all voted for Rossi, as the 51st state.

Washington is not the only state where rural regions quarrel with the population centers that dominate them. Counties in northern California periodically campaign to become part of Nevada. Last year, residents of Killington, Vt., angry at the state's method of financing education, endorsed a plan to secede and be annexed to New Hampshire, where their taxes might be lower.

Few people here take secession seriously, especially not on the west side of the Cascades, where most of Washington's population lives. The local joke is: What would eastern Washington be without western Washington? Answer: poor.

"This is silly. It's political theater. It's kerosene on a candle. It will make a big poof, but there is not any fuel to sustain it," says Walt Crowley, director of, a Web site about the state. "For every dollar in transportation taxes the rural counties pay, they get about $7 back. They can't seem to do that math."

The election challenge is focused on King County, which aggravates divisions in the state. The county has 1 million voters, compared with the 650,000 voters in all of eastern Washington combined, and Gregoire outpaced Rossi in King County by 150,000 votes.

Republicans complained in court papers about how King County's election was run. Former U.S. senator Slade Gorton, who lost his seat in a squeaker in 2000, recently declared that King County "has the worst elections administration" anywhere in the country.

Ballots scrutinized

Republican lawyers have drawn a list of 1,335 ballots cast by dead people and felons, as well as provisional ballots they allege should have been disqualified. The majority of those were cast in King County.

"You've got over a thousand illegal votes," says Harry Korrell, the Republicans' lawyer.

But several things are working against the GOP, not the least of which is Gregoire has been in office for four months.

Chelan County Judge John Bridges did not bow to GOP pressure to rush the case to a swift conclusion. But neither did he accede to the Democrats' efforts to drag it out.

"He's reasonable and fair," says Kel Groseclose, a Methodist minister here. "He has a lot of common sense."

Groseclose got to know the judge when he challenged the validity of a recent mayoral election because Wenatchee's newly elected mayor lived outside the city limits. Bridges overturned the mayoral election. His ruling was upheld by the state Supreme Court. The recount case probably will be decided by that court, too.

Bridges has ruled that he does not have the authority to call a new gubernatorial election. Should he set aside last fall's election, the Legislature would have to call a new one. Until then, the lieutenant governor would serve.

What's next?

Democrats say in court papers that the Republican list is inaccurate.

David Olson, University of Washington political scientist, says he expects Bridges to reject the GOP's analysis of the felon votes. "It's too confusing. Some felon voters have had voting rights restored. It is surrounded with so much uncertainty, the court is not going to accept it," he says.

After the recounts, Rossi got some sympathy from voters. Stuart Elway, a Seattle pollster, says that when Gregoire took office, 56% of voters did not consider her the legitimate winner.

But that was then. A new Elway Poll last month indicates voters have moved on. Two-thirds say they accept the result and don't want a new election.

Rossi now risks losing that voter goodwill, says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics: "At a certain point, people expect you to yield gracefully."