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Washington's 2004 race between Gregoire and Rossi: the closest governor's race in US history

The gubernatorial race between Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi was also the closest governor’s race in U.S. history.

Much like what's happening today, the 2004 Washington state gubernatorial race was littered with allegations of fraud, protests, court cases, questions raised about mail-in ballots.

That gubernatorial race between Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi was also the closest governor’s race in U.S. history.

Washington then, like many states now, was transitioning to mail-in voting. Only in Washington, the transition took decades, not just months to happen.

According to the Secretary of State’s office, any voter could become an absentee voter starting in 1991-- you didn’t need a reason. In 1993, some counties even began moving to all vote by mail.  

In the wake of 2005, reforms were enacted. Voters at the polls were required to show ID. Counties were given the option of voting entirely by mail and the Secretary of State said two-thirds of the state’s counties had switched to all-mail voting that year. In 2011, vote by mail was made law statewide.

The race for the top job in 2004 was for an open seat after Gov. Gary Locke decided against running for a third term. State Attorney General Christine Gregoire was the Democratic nominee and State Senator Dino Rossi was the nominee for the Republicans.  Both were considered centrists in their respective parties. 

Election day was on Nov. 2, 2004. The race wouldn’t truly be over until June 7 after a Chelan County Superior Court judge ruled in Gregoire’s favor for the position. A judge had to get involved because the race was so closed.

Gregoire had been in office since her inauguration on Jan. 12, which was also contested by Republicans to no avail. In between, Rossi would be 261 votes ahead a week after the election, but with that narrow margin, a machine recount was required under state law. 

After that recount, Rossi was ahead by 42 votes. The Democratic party put down $730,000 for a hand recount, an amount that would be reimbursed by the state if the recount changed the outcome. It did. The manual recount put the race eight votes in Gregoire’s favor at first.  But during that recount, more votes that had been missed had surfaced—especially in King County. By the end of December, Gregoire was ahead by 130 votes. 

After a Pierce County Superior Court judge ruled that the found votes couldn’t count, the Washington Supreme Court reversed that said they could so the inauguration could move forward.

It was messy, and eventually, the head of King County Elections would resign. Republicans argued that illegal votes had been cast, well over 1,000 of them, well beyond the margin of victory Gregoire looked like she had.

But in the end, it would be a trial Judge John Bridges in Chelan County Court who would decide who won.

Ultimately, Gregoire would hang on to the job, with an official margin of 129 votes over Rossi.  A competing total put her 133 votes ahead.  

"Number one, only the good Lord himself knows who won that election. It was such a mess,”  said Chris Vance, who was then head of Washington’s Republic Party and primary spokesman for Republican efforts to put Rossi in the Governor’s office.   

Vance has since left the party in the wake of Donald Trump winning the White House in 2016. 

“And what I think is we need to remember if we start with a rule that every vote should count, then we do what is necessary to count every vote,” said Jenny Durkan, then attorney for the Gregoire Campaign and now Seattle’s mayor.

See more on the trial that took place to determine election results here.

Track election results and analysis with KING 5

On Tuesday, Nov. 3, watch NBC coverage of the 2020 election on KING 5 from 4-11 p.m. to follow national election results and analysis.

Tune in to western Washington election coverage from 8-11 p.m. on KONG and 11 p.m. to midnight on KING 5. Local coverage will also stream live on king5.com and the KING 5 app.

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