GOP focuses on election "fraud"
Seattle Times chief political reporter
Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi sued in Chelan County Superior Court in January, seeking to overturn Gov. Christine Gregoire's election. He said illegal votes and errors by election workers made her victory illegitimate.
Rossi's case has gone to trial and is expected to last through next week. Republicans yesterday focused on fraud allegations. Today, Judge John Bridges is expected to consider specific evidence of problems King County workers had accounting for absentee ballots.
Bridges could reject the Republicans' claim, or he could nullify Gregoire's election and declare Rossi the winner. Rossi has said he wouldn't accept victory by court judgment, so the ruling could create a vacancy in the governor's office. State law provides for a special election to fill a vacancy. Temporarily, the office would be filled by Lt. Gov. Brad Owen.
Both sides agree that whatever happens in Bridges' court, the outcome will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Trial on TV
TVW public-affairs network is broadcasting live, gavel-to-gavel coverage of the gubernatorial-election challenge in Chelan County Superior Court. Sessions will begin as early as 8:30 a.m. and continue as late as 5 p.m.
Comcast is carrying TVW's trial coverage on Comcast On Demand. Comcast digital-cable subscribers can access the programming at no extra charge. It will be available to digital-cable customers in Western Washington for at least two weeks after the trial.
WENATCHEE — The first-ever trial to settle a disputed Washington governor's election opened yesterday with Republicans launching a broad and bold attack on King County, alleging that "sinister" fraud and corruption "up the food chain" robbed Dino Rossi of the governor's office.
Judge John Bridges was quick to rein in such talk. He said fraud charges, which could make it easier for Republicans to get the November election thrown out, have not been part of the Republican case and can't simply be added now.
Bridges said he would allow Republicans to introduce evidence against King County, but as of now it won't be considered fraud in his courtroom. That matters because a fraud claim would not require Republicans to show that King County's actions specifically cost Rossi votes or gave Democrat Christine Gregoire her winning margin of 129 votes.
Without that, Republicans are required to show how actions by election workers, as well as illegal votes by felons and others, directly affected the candidates' vote totals.
Republicans made clear from their opening statement yesterday that fraud in King County is now the central claim of their case.
"The judge will wait ... to see if they connect the dots and show election fraud," said Thomas Ahearne, an attorney representing Secretary of State Sam Reed.Democratic attorney Jenny Durkan said she thinks Bridges will prohibit Republicans from raising issues of fraud by election officials. Republican attorney Dale Foreman conceded that Bridges' comments about fraud make it harder for Republicans to make their case. But he said they will continue to lay out allegations that King County's actions cost Rossi the race.
He alleged ballot stuffing in some precincts, disappearing ballots in others, and fraudulent documents, and said those amount to "a case of fraud by upper management of King County elections."
The Republican charges did not come as a complete surprise. Party officials have been saying recently that they would raise such issues at the trial.
But Foreman's opening statement yesterday was notable for the sharp language he chose and because he offered no direct evidence of fraud. He said the case will be made by circumstantial evidence.
"This election was stolen from the legal voters of this state by a bizarre combination of illegal voters and bumbling bureaucrats," Foreman said.
The lawsuit was filed in January by Rossi, state Republican Party chairman Chris Vance and other Republicans. Rossi won the initial count by 261 votes. He then won a machine recount by 42 votes. But Gregoire won the third and final count when a hand tally of nearly 3 million votes gave her a margin of 129 votes.
Since soon after the election, Republicans have criticized the King County elections staff for its inability to reconcile the number of ballots counted with the number of people shown as having voted Nov. 2.
Foreman said yesterday that county records show there were more ballots counted than voters recorded in the two precincts where Gregoire won the largest percentage of the votes. And in two of the three precincts where Rossi did the best, he said, the opposite was true: There were more voters than votes counted.
"That is not a random error," Foreman said, but proof of "partisan bias."
"King County's failure to accurately track the absentee ballots was not only unlawful but opened the door to ballots being lost or added to the process, and the evidence will show we think that both of those things happened," he said.
Democratic attorney Kevin Hamilton used much of the Democrats' opening argument to urge Bridges to disallow the fraud charges.
"Fraud is not part of this case and it never has been," he told Bridges. "Obviously there is some desperation seeping into the petitioner's case."
He said Republicans are "hedging their bets" by taking a "loose collection of administrative errors" and calling it fraud.
"Every election has irregularities," Hamilton said. "They occur in every county in this state, in every state in this nation. This democracy of ours is not a perfect system, and we all recognize that."
The trial is the first time a contested governor's race has made it this far in the legal process. All sides have long agreed that whatever Bridges decides here, the case will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Republicans are hoping that if Bridges nullifies the election, the appeal will happen in time for a new governor's election this fall.
The day quickly progressed from a recognition of the legal history being made, to the drama of the Republican claims of corruption and ballot-box stuffing, to an odd monotony.
Republican lawyers spent hours reading aloud a transcript of Secretary of State Reed's deposition. Foreman played the role of Reed; Mark Braden played several lawyers who asked the questions.
"If Mr. Braden gets tired of playing me I can play myself," Durkan told the judge.
Reed's attorneys objected to the attorneys reading only the portions they wanted to enter in the record, so the entire session was re-enacted for Bridges.
Bridges is struggling with how to keep the trial on schedule. He said he would spend the night reading the deposition of King County elections director Dean Logan, which may avoid another reading today.
"I feel like I'm running in quicksand here," Bridges told the attorneys.
Both sides have said they also want to help fix election problems, something that others fear is lost in the partisan clashes.
Assistant Attorney General Jeff Even, representing Reed, said what happens with the case will affect state elections for years.
Barnett Kalikow, an attorney representing the Klickitat County auditor and, he said, the auditor's "brothers and sisters throughout the state of both parties," said election officials made mistakes and failed to notice some made by other people.
"Human beings will do that," he said. But he said that until yesterday no one had accused election officials of trying to throw the election.
Kalikow, representing one of the few county officials who chose to stay involved in the case, told Bridges that his decision "will determine the outline of when and how judges get involved in elections in the future."
He said it'd be bad if judges got involved in all close races "because it politicizes the judiciary, and the perception always will linger that their political persuasion affected the outcome."
David Postman: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
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