SEATTLE — Every vote counts, and every vote should be counted. If only it were that simple.
In the increasingly bizarre and dizzyingly close race for governor in Washington state, the votes already have been counted -- twice. Except for some votes that haven't been counted at all: Those are being fought over in court.
As things stand now, Republican Dino Rossi is the governor-elect, by 42 votes of the nearly 2.9 million cast, a hairbreadth margin of 0.0015%. If the contest were a 100-meter dash, Rossi would be ahead of Democrat Christine Gregoire by about 1 millimeter.
But the race is not over, and an unprecedented hand recount of the previous machine-fed tallies has unearthed roughly 500 additional votes for each candidate -- as well as a mysterious trove of some 735 still-sealed, never-before-counted absentee ballots here in largely Democratic King County.
Those votes, which county officials say went unopened due to a computer malfunction compounded by a clerical error, could be the key to a victory for Gregoire, the state attorney general, over Rossi, a state senator.
Democrats say, "Let's count all the votes." Republicans smell a rat.
With the disputed votes in a judicial lockdown and the major parties in a legal smackdown, and with one former Washington secretary of state calling for an entirely new election, the state's clean-government image is taking a pounding.
Even staunch defenders of the state's vote-counting apparatus are straining for favorable comparisons to election fiascoes elsewhere, such as Ukraine.
"Nobody's gotten poisoned here," pointed out Gene Hogan, chairman emeritus of Western Washington University's political science department.
That may be true, but there is plenty of bile around, with each side essentially accusing the other of trying to steal the election.
"There is no way to tell if they are colossally incompetent or totally corrupt," state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance said last week, referring to King County elections officials, who are appointed and officially nonpartisan.
Those officials announced Monday that they had mistakenly rejected 573 absentee ballots, due to malfunctions when those voters' signatures had been scanned into the county computer system.
They said elections workers should have checked paper records that would have shown the signatures on sealed envelopes containing the absentee ballots to be valid, but instead put those ballots into a reject pile.
The mistake was discovered by Larry Phillips, a Democrat who is chairman of the King County Council, a powerful elected body here.
Phillips, like about 70% of state voters, had filled out an absentee ballot and mailed it in rather than casting a vote in person -- he was in Ohio on election day, working to get out the vote for Sen. John F. Kerry.
Last Sunday, while reviewing a list of rejected absentee ballots in his district encompassing Seattle's Queen Anne, Magnolia and Ballard neighborhoods, Phillips came across a surprising name: Larry Phillips.
"I was absolutely stunned. I said, 'I can't believe this -- they haven't counted my vote,' " recalled Phillips in a telephone interview.
"I'm a perfect voter," Phillips continued. "I'm a regular. I know what I'm doing. I've voted in every election since I was 21."
Phillips said he started "raising the roof" with the elections board, and officials there said they soon discovered 573 apparently valid but unopened and uncounted absentee ballots.
Later in the week, they said, a worker noticed that none of the absentee ballots included last names beginning with A or B, and only two with C; 162 more valid but uncounted ballots were discovered stuck in a tray that was under other trays, the elections board said.
In the ensuing fracas, Republicans went to court and essentially accused Democrats of conducting an illegal postelection treasure hunt for new votes.
Democrats said the whole point of the hand recount was to find and correct any mistakes that had wrongly disenfranchised voters, be they Republican or Democratic.
On Friday, a state judge in Tacoma sided with the Republicans, ruling that the disputed King County ballots should not be opened.
"It is not appropriate to go back and revisit decisions on whether ballots should or should not be counted," said the judge, Stephanie Arend.
Democrats immediately appealed to the state Supreme Court, whose nine justices are elected in nonpartisan races. The court, which is generally considered left-leaning but hardly ensconced with one party, is expected to take up the matter early next week.
In arguments Friday, Democrats maintained that elections officials in 38 of the state's 39 counties that had completed their hand recounts had certainly made "new decisions" about counting previously unrecorded ballots.
All told, Rossi has picked up 569 more votes and Gregoire 561, giving Rossi an unofficial margin of 50 votes statewide -- but with King County yet to report its hand-count tally of the roughly 900,000 votes cast there.