An Election for the Ages: Rossi vs. Gregoire, 2004 by Trova Heffernan


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Foreword by Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed

The 2004 race for Washington Governor will go down in history as one of the closest and most controversial of all time. The stunning turn of events that unfolded from April 1, 2004, to June 6, 2005, will consume researchers and future decision makers for years. Elections like 2004 are not easily forgotten.

A nearly flawless campaign for governor that allowed an underdog to catch the frontrunner, a fierce rivalry between political parties, and an embattled Secretary of State made news around the world and contributed to a political drama unmatched by any election in modern, state history. And the race for Governor is only part of the story.

This account is an inside look at how this Secretary of State and his key executive and election staff leaders handled a wildly unpopular primary change, the largest General Election in state history, hundreds of probing press calls a week, free-wheeling blog writers and talk radio hosts, thousands of angry voters, stressed-out election workers, aggressive political parties, frantic and suspicious gubernatorial campaign teams, and five contentious court cases—including two in the State Supreme Court.

By the time the courtroom cleared for the last time, one candidate had permanently assumed duties as Governor, the opponent—who actually won the first two ballot counts—began a new life outside of politics. As Secretary of State, I personally survived questions about my integrity and two efforts to have me recalled from office.

My intent in reliving the trials of the 2004 election is to provide some understanding, for history’s sake, of the dynamics involved in a heated political battle that reached beyond a particular race to democracy itself. More than anything, the 2004 Gubernatorial Election demonstrated the importance of the vot-ing process to the very people it served. As they should, citizens expect and depend on fair and accurate elections.

Prologue

Chasing dreams of a governorship, two viable and sophisticated candidates decided to run for Washington’s top statewide post in 2004. The election will long be remembered as a remarkable milestone in state history. For the first time, two recounts were conducted for a statewide office. Also for the first time, litigation followed the recounts, calling into question the integrity and the accuracy of the entire voting process. Never before had the occupancy of the most important office in state government been so disputed for so long. Not until June, 2005 did Washington voters know for certain who would be the state’s Governor. Ultimately, this historic election turned out to be the mother of all cliffhangers, and, percentage-wise, the closest Governor’s election in American history.

Out of 2.8 million votes cast, the final margin-after the initial count, a machine recount, and a manual recount—was a razor-thin 133 votes. During the third count, a statewide manual re-count, with 38 of the 39 counties reporting in, and with Washington voters frantically clicking their browsers for the final county to report, the candidates stood a breathtaking eight votes apart. While closer elections have been held, the total number of ballots cast, the remarkable closeness of the race, the dramatic events that unfolded, and the magnitude of the office at issue came together like a perfect storm to create an election for the ages.

This account of the 2004 Governor’s race is written from the perspective of the Office of Secretary of State.

As with all reports of this nature, a degree of subjectivity is inevitable. A conscious effort to avoid partisanship, however, has been a foremost objective.

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