Two legislative races in Clark County are indeed close enough to trigger automatic recounts, according to election results certified Tuesday, which also show Republican Sen. Don Benton with a 78-vote lead over Democrat Tim Probst and Democrat Monica Stonier with a 139-vote lead over Republican Julie Olson. Both races are in the 17th District.
Despite the need for a recount in his race for re-election, Benton, R-Vancouver, has already declared victory. On Monday evening, he issued a press release that stated: "No one familiar with Clark County elections expects the victory to be overturned."
The recounts will be done by hand and will begin next week, Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey said. On Thursday, elections officials begin separating all of the 17th District ballots from the other Clark County ballots.
Officials will need to perform two recounts of all 58,994 ballots cast in the 17th District — one recount for the House race and one for the Senate race. The recount in the Senate race could be finished by the middle of next week, Kimsey said, and the recount in the House race could be finished about three days after that.
Rather than seek election to a third House term, Probst ran against Benton.
Olson and Stonier ran to replace Probst in the House. Although Benton is declaring victory, Probst said he wants to see the results of the recount before he makes any announcement about the election outcome. He also said he will have no regrets if he does lose.
"I'll definitely wait and see how the recount turns out," Probst said by phone Tuesday. "I'm incredibly proud of the race that I ran, about sticking to the issues and the record, and I'm proud of my volunteers and my supporters. … I would do it all over again."
Benton said his presumptive victory is a win for all of Washington state. Partisans at the state level have kept a close eye on Benton's Senate race because his win could disrupt the narrow Democratic majority in the Senate.
This year, Democrats were the majority party in the state Senate, 27-22. A Benton win means the Democrats would have a 26-23 majority for the 2013 legislative session.
Because there are a couple of philosophically conservative Democrats in the Senate, Republicans are hoping they can gain at least a philosophical majority and force a power-sharing arrangement that would elevate Republicans to some committee chair positions. Republicans employed a similar strategy during the budget debate earlier this year, when a few Democrats sided with Republicans and helped them advance an alternative spending plan.
"A coalition seekinga philosophical majority for smaller government has a real chance of now forming in the Senate," Benton wrote in his press release. "It can act as a counterweight to the House."
Senate Democrats announced on Tuesday that they would give Republican members more seats on Senate policy committees, which would make it easier for Republican lawmakers to pass legislation out of each committee. If the Democrats' plan is approved by the entire Senate, Democrats would have only a one-vote advantage over Republicans in those policy committees.
Democrats also proposed picking one of their more conservative Democrats to chair the Senate's budget-writing Ways and Means Committee.
In the race between Benton and Probst, 109 voters wrote in a different candidate and more than 3,800 didn't fill out that portion of their ballot. In the race between Stonier and Olson, there were 59 write-ins and more than 4,100 ballots in which their race was left blank.
More than 16,000 registered voters in the 17th District didn't vote. Countywide, voter turnout in the 2012 general election was 79.58 percent, according to the certified election results.
The new voter boundary lines could have played a slight role in the election results, Probst said. The 17th District's lines changed slightly after being adjusted based on population information from the 2010 Census.
Probst said he estimates that he lost about 0.4 percentage point to Benton because of redistricting. At the same time, Probst said that he knew how redistricting would impact him before deciding to run against Benton.
"It's really not relevant, because I knew that well ahead of time," Probst said. "But the margin of victory here is actually smaller than the amount that redistricting changed the district."
Benton has said that the new redistricting plan caused him to lose some deeply conservative areas.
According to the certified election results, Probst was 0.14 of a percentage point behind Benton. It's the closest a challenger has come to unseating Benton, who was elected to the state Senate in 1996. Olson was 0.26 of a percentage point behind Stonier.
Elections officials must recount ballots in races that are fewer than 2,000 votes apart and less than 0.5 of a percentage point apart, according to state law. That recount must be done by hand if the margin is less than 150 votes and less than 0.25 percentage point apart.
Kimsey said Clark County plans to do both 17th District recounts by hand because their equipment prohibits them from feeding the ballots through a second time.
Neither Olson nor Stonier seemed ready to call the election outcome Tuesday.
"I'm beyond trying to predict what might happen at this point," Olson said. "This has been a crazy election cycle."
Olson said she thought she had a good chance of pulling ahead of Stonier as later ballots were tallied, because the later ballots typically lean toward conservatives. Olson had a lead over Stonier on election night, while Probst had a lead over Benton.
As ballots continued to be counted after Election Day, both Benton and Stonier captured the leads.
"It's been a bit of a ride, that's for sure," Olson said. "We'll just let the process play out and trust its integrity."
Out of respect for Olson, Stonier said she would not make a declaration of victory until after the recount. "But we are very optimistic that the recount won't change the results," Stonier wrote on Facebook.
The close House race hasn't attracted the same statewide attention as the race between Benton and Probst. The state House, which currently has a 56-42 Democratic majority, is not at risk of losing Democratic control.
If the recount does confirm that Benton and Stonier have won their elections, the political makeup of the 17th District will remain the same, with one Republican senator, one Republican representative in the House and one Democratic representative in the House.