SEATTLE - Washington's Supreme Court ruled yesterday that 735 newly discovered ballots in liberal-leaning King County must be counted, tipping the state's closest-ever gubernatorial election to Democrat Christine Gregoire. The decision reversed a lower court ruling that had prevented the state's most populous county from considering the disputed ballots.
But after seven weeks, three statewide tallies and several court decisions, the contest is far from over as talk mounts of further legal challenges - and possibly even an unprecedented statewide revote.
A hand recount completed yesterday afternoon, just hours after the court ruling, had Gregoire leading Republican candidate Dino Rossi by 10 votes - a stunning reversal in a race that had Rossi ahead in both the original tally and a mandatory machine recount.
The hand count did not include the 735 King County ballots, which election officials planned to canvass this afternoon.
"It is too early to declare victory," said Gregoire, a three-term attorney general. "Although we're ahead right now, there are still hundreds of votes to be counted."
Gregoire called yesterday's court ruling a "huge victory" for Washington and said that she hoped a winner would be determined by the end of the week because there are "huge issues facing this state, and we need to get on with it." Rossi's campaign, however, has accused state Democrats of conducting a treasure hunt for votes in order to steal the election. A legal challenge from Republicans to the latest ruling is virtually assured, although what form it will take is not clear.
Both sides have brought up the possibility of asking the Legislature to intervene. Lawmakers could ask for a revote early next year.
GOP leaders said yesterday that they will ask counties to reconsider hundreds of rejected or overlooked ballots, almost guaranteeing that the battle will drag on into the new year.
"Now that the Supreme Court has decided this is a recanvassing issue," said Rossi spokeswoman Mary Lane, "we have ballots across the state that we believe were erroneously rejected, and we will be asking [counties] to recanvass them.
"To borrow a phrase from our friends in the Democratic Party, 'Every vote should count.'"
Election officials have hinted that the Jan. 12 inauguration date could be pushed back.
"The battle is not over," said state GOP chairman Chris Vance, who vowed to "fight by the new rules."
Gregoire, 57, was considered the favorite going into the election against Rossi, 45, a real estate agent and former state senator.
But Rossi won the initial vote, tallied two weeks after election day, by 261 votes out of nearly 2.9 million cast. Because the race was so close, state law mandated a machine recount, which Rossi won again, this time by 42 votes on Nov. 30.
Democrats then sought and paid for a hand recount, which began Dec. 8. With every county reporting except for King, Rossi held a 49-vote lead. All attention was drawn toward the state's most liberal county, which encompasses Seattle.
King County officials announced last week during the hand recount that they had found 735 absentee ballots that an election worker put in the wrong bin and forgot. A judge in a neighboring county granted Republicans a restraining order to stop King County from counting those ballots.
At the Supreme Court hearing yesterday, Republicans argued that King County officials had rejected, not overlooked, the disputed ballots, and therefore the votes should not be counted. Attorney Harry Korell said Democrats were trying "to expand the universe of valid ballots" in order to win the election.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.