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Wednesday, November 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Taking statewide elections to a dangerous place

State Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance must get paid by the hissyfit.

His hyperventilated speechifying and efforts to turn King County Elections into Palm Beach County of the North are over the top.

In needlessly inflammatory rhetoric, Vance all but accuses King County elections officers of fraud in the gubernatorial election.

By doing so, he takes elections to a dangerous place. The result could be hundreds of disenfranchised voters. Washington long has prided itself on clean elections. Conspiracy theories running amok do a disservice to us all.

"We don't trust them," Vance said repeatedly about King County election officials, some of whom were appointed by ... Democrats. Somehow, he does trust elections officials of both parties in counties Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi is winning.

Vance runs on one speed: bombast.

Earlier this week, Vance said election officers may be engaging in partisan politics in ballot counting and accused County Executive Ron Sims, a Democrat, of having a history of "hiring political hacks to run his elections."

No election office in our state should be confused with "The Jerry Springer Show," where rewards go to those who shout loudest. Let the process and vote counting play out. Let votes be counted according to the law.

Rossi already is the likely winner of this heated, record-long gubernatorial race, but because the race is so close — a few hundred votes separate him from Democrat Christine Gregoire — rules of recounting apply.

Vance's local and out-of-town Republican lawyers went to court last weekend to stop King County and other counties from tabulating votes they are supposed to count.

Dean Logan, King County elections director, was a Democrat when elected clerk of Kitsap County Superior Court, but also worked for two Republican secretaries of state — for Ralph Munro as manager of elections training, for Sam Reed, as director of elections. He came to King County highly recommended. County Elections Superintendent Bill Huennekens worked for a Democrat in Mason County and for two Republican secretaries of state.

Sure, most counties, including King County, have made mistakes this election, but I doubt a conspiracy to count votes only for Gregoire. Serious elections officials are trying to do a serious job.

Vance said no other county has the ballot-counting problems King County does. He said that 2.3 minutes before Snohomish County, where Rossi was leading, found 242 ballots left out in the first count.

My guess is, locating lost ballots and numerical adjustments occur all the time. But it usually happens after one candidate has won by a significant percentage and no one notices. The media are gone.

Vance's strategy seems to be to throw a zillion accusations at the only county where the Democrat has a chance, hoping one will stick.

Most King County ballots in dispute hinge on the question of whether voters are being tested on their ability to follow instructions or their intent to cast a vote. Voting is not the same as taking a college-entrance exam. Voter intent is the appropriate standard.

On these ballots, the voters did not fill in the oval next to the candidate's name as instructed. A full mark in the oval is easily read by a machine. Voters might have used a red pen, which the machine may not read, or used a check mark or circle around the candidate's name.

As with new coffeemakers and DVD players, not everyone reads instructions carefully. So the law tells election officials to interpret ballots if voter intent can be ascertained.

For example, in Chelan County, which Rossi was winning, one voter checkmarked the letter D next to Democratic candidate names throughout the ballot, including the governor's race. The vote did not count in the first machine count. During the recount, Chelan County Auditor Evelyn Arnold, a Republican, gave the vote to Gregoire, because she determined voter intent. That makes sense.

Vance also argues it is not fair to treat ballots counted by so-called opti-scan machines in King and 22 other counties differently than ballots in 14 punch-card counties not given that kind of screening.

Actually, counties using punch cards perused the ballots before ballots were counted the first time. The standard is whether at least two sides of the punch are clearly pushed out.

This is the closest gubernatorial election in state history. After 20 years out of power, Republicans are eager to take the governor's office, and they likely will do that. But how about taking it more graciously and with more deference to the election process?

Voters and candidates have a right to know election officers everywhere worked diligently to count every ballot — in counties Rossi is both winning and losing.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com. Look for more of her thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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