Judge John Bridges yesterday upheld the election of Gov. Christine Gregoire, thoroughly rejecting Republican claims of wrongdoing and leading...

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WENATCHEE — Judge John Bridges yesterday upheld the election of Gov. Christine Gregoire, thoroughly rejecting Republican claims of wrongdoing and leading Dino Rossi to forgo what the judge thought was an inevitable appeal to the state Supreme Court.

GOP candidate Rossi said the “political makeup” of the high court would have made it almost impossible to get Bridges’ decision overturned. At a news conference hours after Bridges’ ruling, Rossi said, “I am ending this election contest.”

That brought to a close seven months of legal and political wrangling over the closest governor’s election in the nation’s history. There were two recounts, five lawsuits, millions of dollars spent by both political parties and a historic two-week trial here to determine who the legitimate winner was.

“I’m personally relieved. God bless my family,” Gregoire said. “God bless those who in the days leading up to this sent me their prayers and wishes. I am happy for myself. I’m happy for the state of Washington that we can finally move on here.”

It was a lengthy decision that took the Chelan County Superior Court judge nearly an hour to read aloud in court as he rejected each of the Republican claims.

Bridges said there was no evidence to suggest fraud, intentional misconduct or any attempt to manipulate the election. He said election officials “attempted to perform their responsibilities in a fair and impartial manner.”

While he had stern words about how King County ran the election, Bridges said that even there, Republicans failed to show any intentional wrongdoing.

“While there is evidence of irregularities, as there appears to be in every election based on the testimony of various county election officials, there is no … clear and convincing evidence that improper conduct or irregularity procured Ms. Gregoire’s election,” the judge said.

“There is no evidence that ballots were changed, the ballot box stuffed or that lawful votes were removed from either candidate’s ballot box,” Bridges said.

Timeline of election lawsuit

Nov. 2, 2004: Election Day. Three-term Democratic Attorney General Christine Gregoire finds herself in an unexpectedly tight race with Republican real-estate agent Dino Rossi, a former state senator. Gregoire is up by 7,000 votes at the end of the night, with hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots yet to be counted.

Nov. 17: With all counties reporting, Rossi wins by 261 votes. State law triggers a machine recount.

Nov. 30: The secretary of state certifies the result of the machine recount, making Rossi the winner by 42 votes.

Dec. 23: The Democratic Party requests and pays for a statewide hand recount. Gregoire wins that by 129 votes.

Jan. 7, 2005: Rossi sues in Chelan County Superior Court, alleging that errors and illegal votes deprived voters of their constitutional right to a “free and fair election.”

Jan. 12: Gregoire is sworn in despite Republican lawmakers’ attempts to stop the inauguration.

May 23: The trial over the contested election begins.

Yesterday: Judge John Bridges rules the election should stand. He rejects, one by one, Republicans’ claims that Gregoire’s victory was due to errors, illegal votes or fraud.

Rossi, Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance and other Republicans filed their lawsuit in January, alleging that illegal votes by felons and others, as well as errors in the election count, robbed Rossi of victory. He won the initial count by 261 votes and a machine recount by 42. But after Democrats raised money for a statewide hand recount, Gregoire won the final count by 129 votes and was sworn in on Jan. 12.

In several key pretrial decisions and throughout the trial, Bridges said he would err on the side of allowing evidence because he assumed the decision would be appealed to the Supreme Court and he wanted to develop as full a record as possible.

Now his ruling will stand as the final word on the heavily litigated election.

Staying out of elections

Bridges said he was guided by the theory that judges should try to stay out of elections.

“The judiciary should exercise restraint in interfering with the election process, which is reserved for the people in the state constitution,” Bridges said.

“Unless an election is clearly invalid, when the people have spoken, their verdict should not be disturbed by the courts,” he said.

To add insult to the Republicans’ loss, Bridges increased Gregoire’s victory margin by four votes — votes cast by felons who testified at the request of Democrats that they had voted for Rossi. That testimony was the only evidence either side presented showing which candidate received illegal votes, Bridges said.

He did say that he found 1,678 illegal votes cast, most by felons. But without evidence of whom they voted for, Bridges said, he wouldn’t subtract those votes from either Rossi’s or Gregoire’s total.

Republicans hoped they could win the case by apportioning the illegal votes on a geographic basis. They proposed a method called proportional deduction, which would have subtracted illegal felon votes from both candidates’ vote totals, assigning them in any given precinct by the same percentage as the overall vote for each candidate in that precinct.

Two academic experts testified for Republicans that proportional deduction was the best available method for estimating how felons voted.

Bridges said the process, though, was not scientifically sound and “does not involve either an accepted theory or a valid technique.”

“Felons and others who vote illegally are not necessarily the same as others in the precinct,” he said.

Ignoring other methods

Echoing testimony by the Democrats’ expert witnesses, Bridges said the Republican theory ignored other methods of determining how someone may have voted, such as looking at their gender. Since the felons were mostly male, Bridges said, they would have been less likely to have voted for the female candidate.

“An election such as this should not be overturned because one judge picks a number and applies a proportional-deduction analysis,” Bridges said. “To do so … within the context of the facts of this case would constitute the ultimate act of judicial egotism and judicial activism, which neither the voters for Mr. Rossi or for Ms. Gregoire should condone.”

Bridges said if he did apply proportional deduction Gregoire likely would have come out the winner.

He took a similar approach with the Republicans’ controversial allegation of fraud in King County’s election division.

Bridges said Rossi’s attorneys failed to properly file that claim before the trial and therefore it could not be considered. But even if that had been done properly, he said, “no testimony has been placed before the court to suggest fraud or intentional misconduct.”

The King County Elections Office came under withering criticism from Bridges before he began reading his decision.

But in his official findings, Bridges cleared King County of any fraud.

“The problems in King County are associated with and result from a lack of communication, lack of taking responsibility for action, a lower level of accountability and a difficulty documenting procedures,” Bridges said.

But he said there was no evidence that those problems were “intentional misconduct or someone’s desire to manipulate the election” or “partisan bias,” the description used by Republicans.

“A bar so high”

Vance, the Republican Party chairman, said yesterday that Republicans disagree with the judge about the facts and his interpretation of the law.

“We believe he has established a bar so high, it’s virtually impossible to contest an election in this state,” Vance said.

Democratic Party attorney Kevin Hamilton, though, said Bridges set the proper standard.

“Election contests are possible, but they’re extremely difficult and you actually have to have evidence,” he said. “You can’t just come in swinging wildly with allegations and finger-pointing.”

He said if Bridges had made it too easy to overturn the election, there’d be “armies of lawyers descending on every close election. Lawyers play an important role in our society, but they really shouldn’t be at the forefront of elections.”

After the judge read his decision yesterday, Republican attorneys packed their briefcases while the Democratic legal team and party officials posed for photos in front of Bridges’ bench, holding the giant blowup of the election certification that’s been in the court for two weeks.

Democratic attorney Jenny Durkan said then that she didn’t think Republicans would appeal.

“Point by point he rejected every one of the Republicans’ claims,” Durkan said. “They chose the county, they chose the forum, he let them put on their evidence the way they wanted.

“Right down the line he gave them every opportunity to prove their case and at the end of the day they couldn’t prove their case.”

Two goals to lawsuit

When Rossi said at a late-afternoon news conference in Bellevue that they’d stop trying, he said he had filed the lawsuit with two goals in mind: “Clean up the election system, especially in King County, and No. 2, to get a new vote so we could have a legitimately elected governor.

“Today it doesn’t look like we’ll be achieving those goals.”

Rossi didn’t elaborate on his comments about the political makeup of the Supreme Court. Last year the court ruled twice on lawsuits related to the governor’s election, each time ruling unanimously, once for Democrats and once for Republicans.

That there will be no appeal will come as a shock to Bridges. All along he has assumed an appeal. Yesterday, as he began reading his decision, he told the attorneys nothing he would say should be taken as criticism of them, and added, “both you and I can take some comfort from the knowledge that soon the ladies and gentlemen of our state Supreme Court will review what I’ve done, what I haven’t done, and my decision in this case.”

For Gregoire, the ruling was like a long-delayed election-night victory.

She watched the ruling on television in her office with staff and said she “burst a little bit into tears” when the judge ruled.

She came out of her office to talk to reporters, beaming and hugging her husband and two daughters before a crowd of employees and onlookers.

Secretary of State Sam Reed, who had been critical of some of the claims of vote fraud made by his fellow Republicans, said he hopes Bridges’ ruling, which he called “forthright, practical and clear,” will help rebuild voter confidence.

“I think it sets the basis for restoring that trust. I would expect in the short run there will be maybe less trust because it exposed problems, illegal votes and mistakes.”

He said if his fellow Republicans wanted to allege fraud they should have done it earlier in the process and “they should have had proof.”

But Reed added: “I thought overall they had a good case, and a right to make it.”

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times staff reporters Jim Brunner, Ralph Thomas and Andrew Garber contributed to this report.