Both parties are making their arguments in Pierce County Superior Court now.
TACOMA, Wash. Republicans went to court today to try to stop King County from counting hundreds of recently discovered ballots in the unbelievably close governor’s race, even as the latest results of a hand recount further trimmed Republican Dino Rossi’s lead.
Rossi won the Nov. 2 election over Democrat Christine Gregoire by 261 votes in the first count and by 42 after a machine recount of the 2.9 million votes cast.
Friday afternoon, with all but two of Washington’s counties reporting results of the hand recount, Rossi had picked up just one net vote over Gregoire. Pierce County’s results shrank his overall lead from 74 to 43.
King County the state’s most populous and a Gregoire stronghold and Spokane County are the only two that haven’t finished their manual recounts.
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.
“If these votes had been counted originally, Christine Gregoire would probably be our governor right now,” said Lisa Cohen, spokeswoman for the Democratic State Party’s recount effort. “We have to correct errors, that’s the whole point of the recount.”
But Republicans say it’s too late to add newly discovered ballots to the recount now.
“This is a recount, not a recanvassing,” said Diane Tebelius, a GOP attorney. State law allows recanvassing only when there are questions about overvotes and undervotes, she argued, and the court shouldn’t allow adding hundreds of ballots to the mix six weeks after the election.
Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stephanie Arend was hearing arguments from both sides this afternoon.
Republicans wanted 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.
Chris Vance, state GOP chairman, said removing the envelopes would make it far more difficult to determine where the ballots came from, whether they were stored correctly and why they were not counted previously.
Bill Huennekens, King County elections superintendent, said the county would not separate any ballots from their security envelopes until the lawsuit is decided.
Party observers and reporters watched this morning as King County election workers searched for more mistakenly rejected ballots, and found 150 to add to the 573 identified earlier in the week.
As a King County sheriff’s deputy stood guard, a county worker unlocked the floor-to-ceiling cage that surrounded hundreds of trays of ballots kept in a south Seattle warehouse. Four workers silently flipped through plastic trays and pulled out ballots coded “no signature on file.”
Huennekens said the 150 ballots, like the 573 found earlier this week, 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.
Officials discovered the mistake Sunday, when County Councilman Larry Phillips found his name on a list of rejected ballots and complained.
On Monday and Tuesday, county workers searched and found 573 mistakenly rejected ballots. Officials later noticed that none of those ballot envelopes contained names beginning with the letters A or B, and only two started with C. That prompted today’s search.
The trays containing ballots from voters with last names beginning with A, B and C were apparently overlooked because they were under other trays, Huennekens said.
“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.”
Vance called those ballots “very suspicious.”
Huennekens said county workers were looking for 723 paper records to match the voter signatures on the ballots. They had found more than 300 by today, he said.
Issaquah resident Zach Oaks, 22, whose ballot is among the 723 newly discovered ballots, watched as King County election workers searched today. He said he has about 50 percent confidence that his vote will be counted.
“It’s really pretty ridiculous,” he said.