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Democrat's Win Upheld in Washington

A judge rules Christine Gregoire's victory as governor is valid. Republican Dino Rossi concedes after months of legal wrangling.

June 07, 2005|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

WENATCHEE, Wash. — More than seven months after election day but only hours after a state judge said he would not engage in "the ultimate act of judicial egotism and judicial activism" by overturning the results of the tortuously close governor's race, Dino Rossi finally threw in the towel Monday.

Rossi, a Republican, conceded to his Democratic opponent, Christine O. Gregoire, who was sworn in to office in January.

Declining his right to appeal Superior Court Judge John E. Bridges' sweeping ruling upholding the election, Rossi, who was vying to become the state's first Republican governor in 20 years, officially ended his unusual legal quest to unseat his foe.

Gregoire, a Democrat, said she was relieved and "happy for the state of Washington that we can finally move on here."

Rossi's brief concession speech had a bizarre time-warp air about it as he conducted the familiar November election-night ritual of the losing candidate -- thanking his wife, children and other supporters, and wishing his opponent good luck in office.

"It's important to the state of Washington that she is successful in implementing her campaign promises," Rossi said.

For good or for bad, Gregoire has started doing so, recently passing with the Democratic-controlled Legislature a $26-billion biennial state budget that raises state gas taxes by 9.5 cents a gallon, with the promise of major improvements to the state's clogged transportation system.

Democrats were jubilant in response to Judge Bridges' ruling here in the seat of rural Chelan County in central Washington.

"This is a victory for the voters," said Kevin Hamilton, a lawyer for the state Democratic Party. "This makes it clear that you can't just go hire an army of lawyers and spend millions of dollars if you don't like the results of a close election. That might be good for lawyers, but it would be really bad for the people."

Rossi defended the legal challenge, arguing he had been successful in "shining the light" on problems with ballot-counting procedures, especially in King County.

Bridges agreed that hundreds of ballots around the state were cast illegally by felons and improperly registered Washingtonians and that votes were even counted for dead people. (Several voters, both pro-Gregoire and pro-Rossi, have confessed to mailing in absentee ballots on behalf of spouses who had recently died.)

But the judge said Republicans had failed to show that elections officials anywhere in the state had willfully miscounted ballots -- or, just as important, that Rossi would have been the winner if all illegally cast ballots could somehow be removed from the equation.

In fact, he said, he thought it was more likely that Gregoire would have won in such circumstances.

In any event, the judge said, "an election such as this should not be overturned because one judge picks a number and applies a proportional deduction analysis."

But Republicans said the judge's decision would have imposed an impossibly high bar for them to jump in a trial.

"I mean, obviously we couldn't track down every one of the felons and make them put their hand on a Bible and swear who they voted for," said Dale Foreman, an attorney for the Republicans. "Even then, you couldn't tell who was telling the truth."

During the trial, Foreman had called for an unprecedented revote as a remedy to ballot tabulations he described as "the biggest mess I've ever seen."

Though it is now officially over, the 2004 election here will go down as one of the tightest of any state and one of the most contentious.

Rossi was ahead by 261 votes -- out of nearly 2.9 million cast -- in the initial tabulation and by 42 in a mandatory recount, both involving a machine count of the votes. But Gregoire, invoking her right under state election law to have an extraordinary hand-recount of the ballots, pulled ahead in that final count by 129 votes.

Washington state Republicans cried foul after the hand recount, accusing officials in Democrat-heavy King County, which includes Seattle, of turning up hundreds of ballots that were not read by the machines.

A local Democratic officeholder in Seattle discovered that his absentee ballot, and those of about 500 others, had not been counted due to a problem with the signature-scanning computers at the county elections office.

In a final blow, Judge Bridges said the only concrete proof he had been shown of how illegal voters had cast their ballots involved four instances of votes for Rossi and one of a vote for the Libertarian candidate, Ruth Bennett.

He thus ordered those four votes deducted from Rossi's total -- increasing Gregoire's margin of victory to 133.

The decision was a clear legal victory for the Democrats. It came from a judge in a predominantly Republican county, where voters favored both Rossi and President Bush by a roughly 2-to-1 margin in the 2004 election over the Democratic opponents.

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