On June 6, 2005, Chelan County Superior Court Judge John E. Bridges concludes the closest and most contested governor's race in state history by rejecting numerous Republican challenges and upholding the narrow victory of Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947) over former State Senator Dino Rossi (b. 1959). Gregoire holds office based on the first hand recount of a statewide election in state history which, in another first, reversed the lead Rossi held in earlier counts. Following a two-week trial, Judge Bridges rules that at least 1,678 ballots were cast illegally, but that Republicans have not proved that Gregoire's victory margin was based on illegal votes or that fraud played a role in the result. Within hours of the sweeping ruling, Rossi announces that he will not appeal, surprising observers and ending the contest.
Gregoire, a popular three-term Attorney General, was expected to easily defeat Rossi, a relatively unknown real estate agent and former legislator, in the November 2, 2004, election. However, the congenial Rossi ran a strong race while even some Gregoire supporters considered her campaign cautious and uninspired. Gregoire's election night lead of only about 7,000 votes was well behind fellow Democrats Senator Patty Murray and presidential candidate John Kerry, who carried the state easily. Ruth Bennett, the Libertarian candidate for governor, had more than 2 percent of the votes.
Recounts and Lawsuits
When the complete initial vote count was announced on November 17, 2004, Rossi had taken the lead in the governor's race by 261 votes. In a machine recount, mandated by state law because of the narrow margin, Rossi's lead was cut to 42 votes -- barely one-thousandth of 1 percent of the more than 2.8 million votes cast. Secretary of State Sam Reed certified the result on November 30, 2004, and Rossi became, officially if temporarily, the governor-elect of Washington.
However, Washington law authorizes any candidate to request a second hand recount. The party making the request is required to pay the cost, around 25 cents per ballot, but is entitled to a refund if the recount changes the result. Before the 2004 election there had not been a hand recount in a statewide race, nor had a recount ever changed the result in a statewide race. Democratic activists, many frustrated by what they saw as national party leaders' failure to contest disputed presidential results in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, urged Gregoire to pursue a recount rather than concede. On the December 3, 2004, deadline, the Democratic Party submitted a $730,000 check, triggering a statewide hand recount.
Republicans criticized Democrats for trying to overturn the election result. Controversy intensified when the Democrats also filed suit in the Washington State Supreme Court seeking an order requiring several counties, in particular King County, to reconsider ballots that had been rejected as invalid and therefore not counted. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the Democrats' request, refusing to order county officials to reconsider the rejected ballots.
King County Election Troubles
As it turned out, King County officials soon admitted -- in the first of a series of embarrassing disclosures of major election errors -- that they had mistakenly disqualified some ballots, which they planned to review in the recount. This time Republicans asked the courts to intervene, but the Supreme Court again unanimously refused to direct how local election officials should proceed. Following the ruling, King County reviewed 735 rejected ballots and determined that 566 were valid.
Even without those ballots, Gregoire held a 10-vote lead over Rossi in the hand recount. When the last 566 votes from heavily Democratic King County were counted, the final results gave Gregoire the victory by 129 votes. Rossi and other Republicans called on her to agree to a new vote, arguing that the election was "hopelessly flawed" (Ammons). Gregoire declined, and on January 11, 2005, the Democrat-controlled Legislature rejected Republican objections and voted to accept the certified results. Gregoire was sworn in as governor the next day.
By then the Rossi campaign and seven voters had filed a petition in Chelan County Superior Court contesting the election. The Republicans cited a series of problems in King County, including discrepancies showing more ballots counted than voters credited as voting and provisional ballots (given to voters who appear at the wrong precinct or whose registration is in question) being counted without the registration status being confirmed, as well as claims of votes cast illegally by convicted felons (who are only allowed to vote in Washington if their civil rights have been officially restored) and dead people.
Political observers suggested that the Republicans chose Chelan County in rural north central Washington not only for its conservative bent but also because John Bridges, one of the three Superior Court judges, was among the few judges in the state who had upheld an election challenge, having overturned a mayoral election in Wenatchee because the winner was not a city resident.
Lots of Lawyers
Judge Bridges, respected as a fair, no-nonsense jurist, allowed the Democratic Party to intervene but denied its motions to dismiss the case. Both parties mustered teams of lawyers that included prominent local attorneys who had appeared before Bridges in the Wenatchee mayoral challenge -- former legislator, party chairman, and gubernatorial candidate Dale Foreman for the Republicans and Russell Speidel, who won the earlier election case, for the Democrats. Mark Braden of Washington, D.C., and Harry Korrell and Robert Maguire of Seattle also represented the Republicans. Seattle lawyers Jenny Durkan and Kevin Hamilton rounded out the Democratic team. Among the many lawyers representing other participants, courtroom observers noted that Bridges often took positions proposed by Secretary of State Reed's attorneys -- Thomas Ahearne of Seattle and Assistant Attorney General Jeff Even.
Before and during the trial, Bridges agreed to hear virtually all the evidence and theories that the Republican team sought to present, without indicating whether he would ultimately accept their case. But the judge made clear that under Washington legal precedent a candidate challenging an election on the basis of illegal or invalid votes must show that the winning candidate's margin of victory was actually due to receiving illegal votes, not merely (as in some states) that the number of invalid votes cast exceeded the margin of victory.
As it turned out, Rossi did not meet this legal standard. Republicans proved that 754 felons voted in precincts that went heavily for Gregoire, and relied on testimony from statistical experts to argue that Bridges should deduct those votes from the candidates in proportion to the percent each received in the precinct where the illegal vote was cast.
The Judge Rules
Announcing his decision on June 6, 2005, Judge Bridges rejected this method, concluding there was no evidence that felons voted the same as others in their precinct. Indeed, the Democrats presented testimony from five of those felon voters, from precincts that had favored Gregoire, who had voted for Rossi or (in one case) Bennett. Democrats also presented evidence of 647 felon votes in precincts that had favored Rossi. Additionally there were 19 illegal ballots in the name of dead voters, 6 illegal double votes, 96 provisional ballots in King County and 79 in Pierce County that were counted improperly, and 77 other ballots in Pierce County that could not be traced to a registered voter, making a total of 1,678 illegal votes.
However, except for the five illegal voters who testified, Bridges ruled that there was no evidence showing for which, if any, gubernatorial candidate the 1,678 illegal votes were cast. Based on the proven illegal votes, Bridges deducted one vote from Bennett's total and four from Rossi's, so that Gregoire's margin of victory actually increased to 133.
Judge Bridges ruled that there had been "deep and significant problems" ("Final Judgment...") in the election and vote counting in King County, but found no evidence of partisan bias or fraud. Since Washington law requires showing either fraud or that the winner's margin was based on illegal votes, and neither was proved, Bridges dismissed the election contest petition. Although an appeal to the state Supreme Court had been widely expected, within hours of Bridges' sweeping ruling Rossi announced that he would not appeal. Seven months after Election Day, the closest and longest governor's election in state history was finally over.