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Originally published Wednesday, January 5, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

The election played out the way state law intended

Teachers in the much-neglected area we once called "civics" can have a field day with Washington's gubernatorial election. There are lessons in practical politics, law-making and...

Special to The Times

Teachers in the much-neglected area we once called "civics" can have a field day with Washington's gubernatorial election. There are lessons in practical politics, law-making and judicial review.

The danger with a close election is that the winner doesn't win very much, because the loser can make life very miserable for four years by a constant din of illegitimacy.

That would come under the heading of politics.

Barring that unhappy outcome, however, the election proved that, for better or worse, there is a real role for political parties and our democracy would be diminished by their erosion.

Some organization is needed to carry out the type of challenges we saw in this election — rallying workers to monitor vote counts and watch the precincts, raising funds so a candidate can take full advantage of the law.

Political parties do that — and also weigh in when issues go to court — so both winner and loser are slightly removed from the taint of partisanship. In the Supreme Court, lawyers from Republican and Democratic parties, rather than lawyers for the candidates, argued the case.

If Dino Rossi believes there is fraud in the vote-counting, Republican lawyers will carry the case. A major role of political parties is to check wrongs by officials of the other party. Any one individual out of office can't do that, even if he or she is very wealthy.

Lesson Two kicks in here, showing the role of the courts. The 2000 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Gore v. Bush damaged for many the idea of a nonpartisan Supreme Court. Particularly for young voters, it is easy to assume all high courts react to their political leanings.

Washington's Supreme Court issued two rulings, one favoring Republicans, the other Democrats, and both were unanimous. The first rejected Democrats' desire to revisit all rejected ballots; the second told Republicans that King County could rectify an error and count ballots it had mistakenly rejected.

Teachers might get tapes of those court proceedings. Students would see careful, probing questions that did not proceed along partisan lines, and intelligent arguments by all parties in an atmosphere of calm and reason. A nation steeped in shout-radio and attack-TV might be reminded that it is possible to proceed in a civilized manner.

The process and the rulings themselves were clear, precise and without dissent from a court of strong individuals, some with very partisan pasts.

Lesson Three might be that laws establish process, and in cases like this they will inevitably favor one candidate over another — but laws remain until they are changed.

Washington's recount process has been the law of the state for a long time. It clearly requires an automatic machine recount in close elections. If that recount leaves a narrow margin, the trailing candidate may request a hand count.

The law clearly says that the hand count is the final count. This is not a baseball playoff, winning two of three counts means nothing. The hand count, presumed by the law to be the most accurate, is final.

For a winning candidate to go through three counts and then agree to another election would defy all the laws of politics (and reason). For a candidate losing the third count to call for such an election is — well, politics again.

While a new vote may appeal to some, consider the logistics. New voters will have registered, others will have moved or died, so a "re-vote" is impossible. Does Libertarian Ruth Bennett remain on the ballot? Suppose the election falls within the recount margins again? Human error is just as likely in another vote as it was the first time.

Republicans' remaining option is to challenge the election on grounds of fraud or malfeasance. Simple election errors, which took place in several counties in addition to King, normally would not be sufficient; connivance or purposeful act is needed to define fraud.

Republicans will do all of us a favor if they take their charges to court, rather than running a four-year campaign of innuendo and slander. Tim Eyman is already on that task, urging his fans to write Olympia.

The law was presumably written for a situation just like 2004, and the law presumably means what it says. If it's a wrong law it can and should be changed by legislation. Until then, our system demands that we follow the law. It was not easy, but it worked the way the law called for it to work. Only a proven case of fraud should overturn the results.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com

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