Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Replaying Florida in Washington

I don't know how many of you have been following the mini-drama regarding the governor's race up here in Washington state, but it's worth noting if only because of certain national implications contained therein. I have been tracking it while busily not posting here the past few weeks.

Christine Gregoire was not my first choice for the governorship, but then, Democrats failed to nominate anyone who was. Gregoire emerged as the winner in a mediocre field, and so it didn't surprise me when she ran a tepid, uninspiring campaign. In fact, it was awful. As it also happened, a good friend of mine worked for Gregoire's office for several years, and over the years he had provided me with a less than flattering view of her judgment and competence.

The only problem was that her opposition, Dino Rossi, was a real potential nightmare. A wholly owned subsidiary of the Building Industry Association of Washington, Rossi was big battering ram aimed right at the state's environmental protection laws. He also was something of a stealth candidate for the religious right, which he masked with an affable public image. There are also some latent issues regarding Rossi's personal ethics.

So I held my nose and voted for Gregoire. (My friend did not; he simply left the governor's race blank.) But I wasn't surprised when the initial returns showed Gregoire losing by 261 votes -- in a year when Patty Murray and John Kerry won handily at the polls statewide. In other words, a lot of people voted for Kerry, Murray ... and Rossi.

Since there were some 2.9 million votes cast, the narrow margin triggered an automatic machine recount, which further trimmed Rossi's margin to a mere 42 votes. At that point, Gregoire's last chance lay in filing for a manual recount, requiring a $730,000 up-front deposit on the part of Democrats. For awhile, no one was sure whether Democrats were even going to come up with the money for it.

At this point, Republicans went into their classic bullying mode, a la Florida 2000: Rossi won the first two counts. Why take it to court? Radio talk-show host John Carlson, the GOP's 2000 gubernatorial nominee, advised Gregoire to "concede already," based on his experience. There was, however, ahem, a minor difference of several hundred thousand votes in Carlson's case.

Indeed, with a difference of 42, it would have been be foolish not to file for a manual recount. It was, after all, the third and final step allowed by Washington law when it came to counting votes in this state's election. But the GOP went all-out to make it seem Gregoire was being outrageously partisan if she did file.

Predictably, when Gregoire finally decided to seek a manual recount, the Republicans were all aflutter, largely because Democrats simultaneously sued to have some disallowed ballots reconsidered:
"I have faith in you, the voters of Washington," Rossi said. "Unfortunately, Christine Gregoire has faith in lawyers."

Other Republican leaders were furious.

"It's outrageous," said state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance. "The Democrats are flat out trying to steal this election by changing the rules."

Let's be clear: At every step of the process, the Democrats followed the letter of Washington law. The state's election statutes are very clear that there are three potential counts of the vote: If, after the general-election tally, a race remains within 1 percent of the total vote, a machine recount occurs automatically. If, after that count, one of the candidates requests it, a manual recount of all ballots occurs. The candidate, however, has to put up a deposit for the costs of the recount, which is reimbursed if the challenge is successful.

Those are the rules. And the most important one is this: Whoever comes out ahead in the final, manual tally is the winner. Period.

And, indeed, Gregoire promised to accept the outcome of the manual recount, even if Rossi won by only a single vote. Rossi, however, refused to match her pledge. That, of course, was the giveaway to what followed.

The GOP's outrageous tactics -- essentially trying to game the system by short-circuiting the legitimate outcome of the established process through a public-relations campaign waged largely over the right-wing talk airwaves -- made it absolutely essential to get behind Gregoire's recount. The principles at stake, particularly regarding respect for the process and the final count, as well as of the right of citizens to have their legally cast votes be counted, were the same ones that had been disregarded so easily four years before in Florida.

Had the legal process in Florida been allowed to proceed without interference from the federal courts, it's clear it would have produced the only equitable solution: a manual statewide recount of all legal votes. And as we now know, that in turn would have produced a different outcome than what the nation got -- namely, an illegitimate president appointed to his seat by a partisan judiciary, a violation of the vote-counting foundations of democracy itself, as well as of the separation-of-powers doctrine that makes the Constitution function.

The GOP prevailed in Florida by short-circuiting the legal vote-counting process through a combination of mendacity and bullying, all of it designed to stop legally cast ballots from being counted. The tendency to obtain and maintain power by undermining the tenets of democracy itself, as we've noted previously, have only continued unabated since.

Washington Republicans pretty early on resurrected the phony memes of the Florida debacle, particularly those that favored maintaining the original vote outcome giving Rossi the slender victory. This included the outrageous claim that machine recounts are "more accurate" than hand recounts, which turns all established precedents regarding vote counts on its head.

The anti-democratic nature of the party, though, really came to the surface when election officials in King County -- home to more than a third of the state's entire votes -- announced the discovery of several hundred ballots that had been improperly disallowed in the first count.

Now, this is the kind of clear mistake that manual recounts are intended to correct, and ordinarily it would be considered uncontroversial for them to be included in the recounts. Indeed, similar mistakes were uncovered in other counties and the votes, logically, counted.

But King County was one of the few places where the votes trended Gregoire's way, so Republicans -- playing the same kind of cherry-picking tactics they had earlier accused Democrats of using -- decided to contest the counting of those ballots in that county only, by filing a suit to prevent it. So much for having faith in the voters, not lawyers.

What was especially noteworthy was that all of the discoveries of mistakes in King County were mistakes that heavily favored Rossi. That is, what they actually signalled was the possibility that Republican operatives within the elections office had made "mistakes" that gave Rossi an illegitimate win and let him claim an initial victory. But using the reverse offense tactics that became famous in Florida, Republicans took to the airwaves charging that the discovery of these mistakes could only be explained by fraud or incompetence on the part of Democrats.

Chairman Vance (our state's own Karl Rove in miniature) inveighed at length against counting the King Coiunty votes (which eventually tallied some 735 ballots) by impugning the integrity of the elections office: "At this point it is impossible for us to determine whether they are colossally incompetent or completely corrupt," he said.

Eventually, the state Supreme Court ruled in Gregoire's favor, saying unanimously that the votes should be counted. A reading of the ruling itself makes clear that it is based on well established precedent in Washington law, dating back to a key 1926 ruling.

Nonetheless, Chairman Vance declared: "Throughout this process we've objected whenever someone tried to change the rules. The Supreme Court just changed the rules. Now we will aggressively fight by those new rules."

Sure enough, it was only a brief matter of time before the Rossi camp -- you know, the folks who previously attacked their opponents for trying to change the rules after the fact -- announced that they wanted another election -- at taxpayer expense, of course. Best of all was their rationale:
"I would not want to enter my governorship with so many people viewing my governorship as illegitimate," Rossi said, reading from a letter sent to Gregoire last night.

Gosh, we certainly can't have people taking higher office in America when some portion of the populacec believes the election to be illegitimate. Heavens no.

Nevermind, of course, that both on the week of his inauguration and a poll taken just before his election, over 40 percent of Americans believed that George W. Bush had not been legitimately elected.

Washington can do better -- right, Dino? We just need to tap another $4 million out of the state budget so the voters can send you packing by another 120 votes. Indeed, all Gregoire needed to win, according to the rules, was the 10-vote margin the hand recount, independent of the additional King County votes, gave her.

Now it's Rossi who wants to change the rules.

As political-science professor Erik Olsen told the Seattle P-I:
Asked what advantages or pitfalls might await Rossi should he refuse to concede, Olsen said, "There is something to be said in a democratic political culture for being gracious when you lose -- but I would not second-guess him if he has some legitimate legal challenges."

However, Olsen said there is a danger that Rossi could be seen as a sore loser.

"There is a real risk for Dino Rossi if he contests this election too much -- that he's excessively partisan, excessively ambitious and that he doesn't respect the process," Olsen said.

Er, too late.

We'd already been exposed to Rossi's, shall we say, less-than-circumspect style. As the Seattle Times reported, "Rossi had been using the title 'governor-elect,' and his family even toured the Governor's Mansion."

The demand for a new election only cemented the impression. Rossi, like the rest of the Republican Party, is a power-grabber.

The party's Stalinist side has been coming out since then. Anyone who fails to toe the party line on the election outcome -- which is, that Gregoire is an "illegitimate" governor and that there exists "massive" evidence of fraud -- is nastily and vociferously attacked. This includes even Sam Reed, the Republican Secretary of State, who chose to follow his legal and constitutional duty and certify Gregoire as the governor-elect:
Now Reed believes the anger toward him is driven by a feeling he hasn't been Republican enough. For example, some think he should have backed the party's call for county auditors to reopen their tallies in hopes of getting more Rossi votes counted.

"There are people who think I should be using the position of secretary of state simply to weigh the scales on the side of my own party. I just don't accept that, and it would not be proper," he said.

"There are some people who have been dismayed that I wasn't a Katherine Harris who took the position, 'I'm a Republican, and by God that comes first.' "

It's clear that the difference between Florida and Washington is that we had the good fortune of having elected a secretary of state with genuine integrity, instead of someone willing to game the system for partisan gain.

Now the GOP is moving toward contesting the election, which can only take place on such grounds as "misconduct on the part of election workers; the ineligibility of a candidate to hold office; or the casting of illegal votes."

So far, there has emerged no credible evidence of any actual misconduct by any specific election workers, nor of a substantively organized effort to cast illegal votes. Stefan Sharkansky -- who seems to have worked himself into believing that Gregoire's imminent ascension to the governorship is actually the "tipping point" that will bring about her downfall (... er, okaaay ...) -- has been busily compiling evidence of "phantom votes" and the like, most of which involve mathematical anomalies not very dissimilar to those raised by Kerry supporters in Ohio, and none of which rise to the level of holding up in court as a challenge to the election.

The chief piece of evidence raised so far is a discrepancy of 3,500 votes in the final King County tabulations; tallies showed that many more votes than people who had actually signed in to vote. But, as always, the GOP was jumping the gun, comparing preliminary tabulations to the finished tallies, which will not be complete for another week and a half.

The GOP went hunting for more of these discrepancies, and today announced it had found more of them in counties that went for Gregoire. In all, it found some 8,500 "phantom votes." But as the story points out, these kinds of discrepancies are extremely common in all elections -- in fact, they're endemic, and will increase the greater the volumes of voters. The 2004 election tallied more votes than any in the history of the state.

Moreover, what the story doesn't point out is that the GOP did not seem to look for "phantom votes" in Rossi counties -- even though there is a statistical certainty that they will appear there as well.

If the reconciled numbers still reveal a substantial number of "phantom" votes -- greater than, say 1/10 of 1 percent of the final vote -- then there might be cause for concern about the presence of systematic fraud in the election. However, at best this anomaly would be cause for investigation only; it would not of itself serve as evidence of actual fraud on the part of election workers or voters. So far, the GOP has only been able to serve up speculation and not evidence.

In an op-ed in the P-I today by Republican mouthpiece David E. Johnson, we get a classic demonstration of conservative projection: It's Democrats who are taking the election to the courts and trying to litigate the outcome, not Republicans. That legally permitted step that Gregoire took in filing for the manual recount was, you see, a kind of litigation, not the normative political step that Rossi would gladly have taken as well were their roles reversed.

Besides accusing Democrats of employing the very tactic they themselves apparently intend to deploy -- that is, of contesting the election through the courts -- Johnson's piece also contains the obligatory egregious distortions, notably:
The third, a manual recount with dubious ballots suddenly discovered in heavily Democratic King County that were not counted previously gave her the election.

There was nothing "dubious" about the King County ballots; they were legally cast, and improperly discarded the first time around. If anything needs investigating on that count, it is the circumstances under which they were originally disallowed. More to the point: They proved to be moot, since the manual recount gave Gregoire the victory even without those ballots; they only increased her victory margin.

Johnson also asks:
Does anyone believe if Rossi had won the manual recount, the Democrats would be willing to concede the election?

Er, well, yes. Gregoire repeatedly said she would accept the outcome of the manual recount. There is no reason to believe she would go back on that word, unless Johnson can prove otherwise. And it was Rossi who refused to join her in that promise. Just who has respect for the voters' will here?

It's important to remember that, as George Howland in the Seattle Weekly points out, Republicans lost because they put all their efforts into playing a PR game in which they hoped to bully the Democrats into submission as they did in Florida. That was, of course, the larger purpose of Rossi's premature assumption of the governor-elect's title and the calls for Gregoire to concede. Meanwhile, Democrats went out and used the legal process, as it's designed to be used, to their advantage to scare up additional votes.

The Republicans failed because of incompetence, pure and simple, and now they're counting on clubbing Gregoire with the "illegitimate" label for the next four years. The irony is delicious. The hypocrisy, though, is what we've come to expect.

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