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Tuesday, December 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

How you play the recount game

Special to The Times

The Washington governor's race will be over in a few days, and the only certainty is that it will be close. Misfiled, uncounted and double-counted votes have been found in most counties, but the 735 disputed ballots in King County probably constitute a disproportionately large error, and they could put Christine Gregoire over the top if allowed.

Before the recount ends, we have a special opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to the democratic process. We are in the midst of such a process, and we should glimpse its workings before the outcome blurs our vision.

When debating and deliberating in a democracy, all parties should appeal to the common good whenever possible. One can never know if a person's arguments are sincere, but we can at least require that their arguments stand on sound and consistent principles.

In the case of the recount, we have engaged in a largely fruitful public discussion that has revealed four basic values in democratic elections: completeness, ballot validity, procedural integrity and finality. When asked how to conduct an election, we no longer say, "Count the votes"; instead, we now advise, "Accurately count every valid vote in a timely manner."

Thus, when Secretary of State Sam Reed insists that this last recount must end the election, he appeals to the principle of finality. When the state Supreme Court recently rejected the Democratic Party's lawsuit regarding uncounted ballots, the court gave a principled argument regarding the integrity of existing procedures, which the court believed were followed. And when King County election officials chose to include in this recount those 735 ballots, they cited both the principles of completeness and procedural integrity.

Unfortunately, we now have more worrying examples of less-principled argument. State Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance has insisted that King County should only recount previously counted ballots. He added that King County officials are either "colossally incompetent or completely corrupt." Dino Rossi himself said that the misfiled ballots are "too much of a coincidence," and that he's "not going to take anything lying down." He then said flatly, "If you do a fair and honest recount, we win."

In these most recent statements, Vance and Rossi appeal to no general principle, other than to make a vague reference to procedural integrity. They refuse to acknowledge that counting those ballots is what procedure requires, as interpreted by the relevant county and state officials. Not coincidentally, Vance and Rossi lodged no protest against the use of these very same procedures to count newly discovered ballots in Republican counties across the state.

We all like to win, but in a democracy, how you play the game is more important than whether you win or lose. In the midst of a state recount or any other juncture, those who demonize their opponents and pledge to "win at all costs" fail to account the cost of losing the greatest victory we've yet secured — the democratic process itself.

John Gastil is an associate professor in the University of Washington Department of Communication and the author of "By Popular Demand: Revitalizing Representative Democracy Through Deliberative Elections" (University of California, 2000).

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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