It's been more than a month since the U-S elections. But in Washington State the governor's race remains unresolved. Fewer than one hundred votes - out of nearly three million cast - separate the two leading candidates. According to election officials, it's the closest statewide race of its magnitude in U-S history. A hand recount of the ballots is just wrapping up. But a legal battle is underway over whether 700 previously disqualified ballots should be included in the count. These ballots could tip the outcome of the race. Reporter Austin Jenkins told VOA's Faith Lapidus where things stand as the week begins:
JENKINS: Well, thirty-eight of Washington State's thirty-nine counties have reported the results of their hand recount. So far the results show both candidates - Republican Dino Rossi, a former State Senator and Democrat Christine Gregoire, the current State Attorney General - have picked up more than 200 new votes each. These are votes that were missed in previous machine recounts, but were found in this latest hand recount. I should point out Washington State has never before conducted a hand recount in a statewide race - so this is history in the making. Currently, the Republican is holding on to his narrow lead, but that could soon change. The one county that has not yet reported its results is King County, which encompasses the city of Seattle. It's a heavily Democratic County and the state's most populous with nearly a third of the votes cast in this race.
LAPIDUS: So, when will King County report its results?
JENKINS: King County plans to wrap up its hand recount this week. But that may not be the end of this. That's because during the hand recount, King County discovered an error that had been made previously. It turns out more than 700 absentee ballots - these are mail in ballots - were mistakenly disqualified during the first count because of a computer database error. When the mistake was discovered Bill Hunnekens, the Director of Elections for King County, spoke with reporters.
HUNNEKENS: "This is a serious mistake and we will do an investigation and figure out what went wrong and what we need to do to ensure that it does not happen again. I guess I'd just tell the citizens of King County that we'll own up to our mistakes and we'll do what it takes to make it right and not have these kinds of things happen again, but it's been an open and transparent system."
JENKINS: After the mistake was discovered, the county elections staff decided to include those ballots in the hand recount - to essentially correct the error. In response the Washington State Republican Party went to court to block those votes from counting. Their argument: essentially that under the law a recount of ballots is simply a re-tabulation of previously counted ballots. Therefore, you can't introduce new ballots into a recount. In response, King County and the State Democratic Party argued that the law does allow election offices to correct errors discovered during a recount. Last week a judge sided with the Republicans and said the votes shouldn't be counted. It turns out one of the voters whose ballot is the subject of this court fight is a King County Councilmember named Larry Phillips, a Democrat. He's very upset that his vote may not count.
PHILLIPS: "If you take the time to participate in Democracy, to express your opinion and your vote, you do it correctly and through no fault of your own your vote is set aside, it should count when you're going through a canvass situation that we're going through right now to make sure that every vote counts. So it is very disappointing - at least at this juncture - and I hope that it is appealed."
JENKINS: The Democratic Party and King County are appealing that decision to the State Supreme Court. A hearing is scheduled for this week and it's possible the court will reverse the lower-court and say the ballots should be counted. The reason this is such a contentious fight is because it's very possible these 700-plus ballots will give the lead and victory to Democrat Christine Gregoire.
LAPIDUS: This sounds like a re-play of the 2000 election, on a smaller scale. When might this end - and what are the possible scenarios for how this could play out in the coming weeks?
JENKINS: This is a bit like a chess game - strategically you're looking several moves ahead. Only in this case we've never played this game before so it's very hard to predict how it will end. It's really anybody's guess what could happen. But there are some possibilities. One is that regardless of the outcome of this court fight, whoever loses the hand recount will concede and the race will be over. But at this point the stakes are so high that seems unlikely. It's also possible the court battles could continue into next year. If that happens - and one of the candidates formally contests the outcome of the race - the Washington State legislature could be asked to decide the winner. There's even been a suggestion that there be a run-off election in February, but that would require passing legislation to authorize a new election. It would seem, however, that time is running out. The new governor is supposed to be inaugurated in early January, the legislature comes back into session then, the state is facing a major budget shortfall - so there's a lot of work ahead for the new governor.
LAPIDUS: Austin, what's the mood there and do you think people are losing confidence in your election system?
JENKINS: Fortunately, there have been no accusations of widespread voter fraud or illegality. What we have seen is the inner-workings of elections and it's a bit shocking. I think people here have learned a dirty, little secret of elections which is that in every election some percentage of ballots are never counted because of mistakes by the voter or the machines that count the ballots. Usually that doesn't matter because even if those ballots were counted, it's such a small percentage it wouldn't sway the outcome of a particular race. In this case, the mantra every vote counts is literally true. I think it's a wake-up call to voters, I would imagine it will lead to some election reform in Washington State, it may speed up the call for electronic voting. I guess in summary I'd say this is not a crisis, but it's certainly has people paying attention to the elections process in a way that's similar to what happened in Florida in the 2000 presidential election. As for the candidates involved in this fight - it's no laughing matter. I think it's safe to say both sides are playing hardball and they're playing to win.
LAPIDUS: Austin, thank you very much. Reporter Austin Jenkins has been covering the Washington state election controversy for local and national radio networks. He spoke to us from the state capital, in Olympia. I'm Faith Lapidus.