Judge blocks count of newly discovered ballots in Wash. governor's race
Friday, December 17th 2004, 8:34 pm
News On 6
TACOMA, Wash. (AP) _ A judge Friday granted a state Republican Party request to block the counting of hundreds of recently discovered King County ballots in the governor's race, which the GOP's candidate is winning by just a few dozen votes.
Even if the election workers wrongly rejected the ballots _ 150 of which were discovered Friday _ it is too late for King County to reconsider them now, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stephanie Arend said.
The issue of the ballots could prove pivotal: With all but King County finished with a hand recount, Republican Dino Rossi was leading Democrat Christine Gregoire by 50 votes.
From reading state law and state Supreme Court decisions, ``it is clear to me that it is not appropriate to go back and revisit decisions on whether ballots should or should not be counted,'' Arend said.
Democrats appealed to the state Supreme Court, and King County Elections Director Dean Logan said the county also planned to appeal.
``These are legitimate voters who cast legitimate ballots,'' he said. ``It's just a travesty if we do not include these ballots.''
Rossi spokeswoman Mary Lane said the judge made the right decision.
``If King County were allowed to keep adding more ballots, elections would never end,'' Lane said.
As for those whose ballots aren't counted, she said: ``That is King County's fault. We cannot be held responsible for the fact that King County made a mistake.''
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander said the high court is prepared to take up the case next week.
Rossi won the Nov. 2 election over Gregoire by 261 votes in the first count and by 42 after a machine recount of the 2.9 million votes cast.
Additional votes have been tallied in a hand recount sought by Democrats. By Friday night, Rossi had gained eight votes in the hand recount for an overall lead of 50, with every county reporting except King, a Democratic stronghold.
King County officials and Democrats want to include 723 newfound ballots in the hand recount, saying they are valid ballots that were mistakenly rejected because of county workers' errors.
``From the beginning, this has been about fixing mistakes and counting every legitimate ballot,'' Gregoire said in a statement Friday. ``The people of Washington deserve an accurate count.''
Republicans sued, saying it was too late to add ballots to the recount now.
Arend granted the GOP a temporary restraining order to stop elections workers from taking the newly discovered ballots out of their outer envelopes, which bear the voter's signature. County elections officials had said ballots would not be separated from their security envelopes until the lawsuit was decided.
Jack Oxford is one of the voters whose ballots Arend said should not be counted.
``She said, 'Jack, your vote doesn't count,''' said Oxford, 50, an electrical field supervisor from Enumclaw. ``I'm very upset, very distressed.''
Early this week, county workers found 573 ballots that elections officials say were mistakenly rejected because there was a problem with how the voters' signatures had been scanned into the county's computer system. County workers should have checked for a paper signature to verify the ballot during the original count, but instead they were put in the reject pile.
Workers found another 150 ballots Friday after officials noticed that none of the 573 ballot envelopes contained names beginning with the letters A or B, and only two started with C.
The plastic trays containing ballots from voters with last names beginning with A, B and C were apparently overlooked because they were under other trays, said Bill Huennekens, King County elections superintendent.
``It is a serious mistake we made, but we are going to do the right thing for the citizens of King County,'' Huennekens said. ``We've conducted this election in an open and transparent manner. We're not trying to hide anything.''
State GOP spokesman Chris Vance called those ballots ``very suspicious.''
The King County Canvassing Board has yet to decide the fate of 22 other uncounted ballots, found this week in the side bins of plastic base units in which polling machines sit.