The country dodged a repeat of the 2000 Florida election debacle this year because George W. Bush’s margin in the decisive state of Ohio was 136,000 votes. But the one out of 50 Americans who live in Washington state are living through a Florida-style nightmare, with Republican Dino Rossi clinging to a 42-vote lead over Democrat Christine Gregoire in the governor’s race after a machine recount of 2.8 million ballots. In the latest example of why this country needs to clean up and clarify its sloppy election systems, Douglas firs substitute for palm trees as the backdrop.
In Seattle’s King County alone the vote counting so far has featured such anomalies as 10,000 ballots being mysteriously discovered nearly two weeks after Election Day, election officials “enhancing” hundreds of unreadable optical-scan ballots, and a judge allowing political partisans to selectively track down voters who cast questionable provisional ballots to see if they could turn them into valid votes. Ms. Gregoire gained several hundred votes through such maneuvers, so she has now declared her intention to pay for a hand recount of some of the state’s precincts to see if she can take the lead. If a selective recount changes the overall winner, the state would pay for a laborious hand recount of all the votes The process could drag on past Christmas and might eventually have to be settled by the state Supreme Court. Gov. Gary Locke is scheduled to leave office on Jan. 12, but wags are already joking he shouldn’t be pack his bags too soon.
The trouble began when it became clear the race was so close it wouldn’t be settled by the ballots counted on election night. Washington allows absentee ballots–used by 70% of the voters this year–to be counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. Thus everyone knew that the way late absentee and provisional votes (cast by people not on the registration rolls, and subject to later verification) were counted might wind up swinging the election.
That set off a legal fracas over the 929 people in heavily Democratic King County whose provisional ballots hadn’t been counted because of mismatched or missing signatures. Democrats demanded the names and addresses of those voters so they could contact them and correct the errors. County officials responded that in requiring that all 50 states offer provisional ballots Congress had stipulated that such votes remain private. Republican lawyers argued that having partisans scavenge for votes would increase the potential for fraud.
But Superior Court Judge Dean Lum said such arguments weren’t as important as the need to make sure every vote counted–an echo of Florida. A full 10 days after the election, while absentee votes were still being counted, he ordered election officials to give the names and addresses of the provisional voters to the Democratic Party. Judge Lum did express regret that the judiciary was being “whipsawed in the middle” of a bitter partisan dispute and asked to “micromanage an election.” But then he proceeded to do precisely that by allowing partisan workers the opportunity to mine flawed ballots after the election, for the first time in the 20 years that Washington has used provisional ballots.
Democrats spent the next three days knocking on doors and speed-dialing voters. Ryan Bianchi, communications assistant for Ms. Gregoire, made it clear how blatantly partisan the approach was. Democratic volunteers asked if voters had cast ballots for Ms. Gregoire. “If they say no, we just tell them to have a nice day,” he told the Seattle Times. Only if they say yes, did the Democrats ask if they want to make their ballot valid. Republicans played catch-up by belatedly using their own phone banks to call up voters and identify ballots that might fall their way if made valid. In the end Democrats turned in some 600 written oaths from provisional voters and Republicans about 200.
Those votes helped narrow Mr. Rossi’s eventual lead to 261 votes as the late absentee votes were finally counted and the results certified on Nov. 17. Then the state began a mandatory machine recount. Once again, King County was the center of controversy. More than 700 previously uncounted ballots were added to the county’s total after election officials “enhanced” them to better divine voter intent. When optical scan machines didn’t accept ballots, workers would fill in ovals on ballots or create duplicate ballots if they felt the voter had meant to register a choice. Hanging chads, meet empty ovals. Through this process, Ms. Gregoire gained 245 votes in King County, dwarfing the shifts to either candidate in any other county.
Such creative counting brought Mr. Rossi’s lead down to 42 votes, a critical threshold to justify further recounts and litigation. Former governor Booth Gardner, a Democrat, told a press conference last week that he thought Ms. Gregoire should concede if the final recount margin had been 100 votes or more. But at 42 votes he now feels a hand recount is appropriate.
But is it? It certainly isn’t more precise, as the fiasco of Florida’s chad counting proved in 2000. “When you’re talking about close to 900,000 pieces of paper, I think the machine count is going to be more accurate than a manual count,” Dean Logan, the elections director of King County and a Democrat, admitted to reporters. “Every time you have human judgment and frailty enter into the process it will change the result,” agrees Bruce Chapman, a Republican who served as Washington’s secretary of state before becoming director of the U.S. census in the 1980s. In an interview, he said a hand recount will likely result in bitter litigation that will see the courts intervene to settle the dispute. John Carlson, a Seattle talk show host who was the GOP nominee for governor in 2000, worries that “this state’s reputation for clean government may not survive the bitter struggle that appears about to begin.”
There but for the grace of Ohio voters went the rest of us this election year. The country dodged the bullet of another presidential election through litigation as thousands of lawyers from both parties stood ready to challenge the results. But Washington state’s mess should remind us that it is still imperative to clean up our election systems, better educate voters, develop more precise rules on how provisional ballots should be treated, and discourage judges from “interpreting” the election rules in creative ways that second-guess the intent of legislators. If we ignore the lessons of Florida in 2000 and the lessons from Washington state this year, we will continue to play a form of Russian roulette with our vote count and make inevitable an eventual repeat of 2000.
Mr. Fund is author of “Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy” (Encounter Books, 2004), which is available from the OpinionJournal bookstore.