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May 26, 2022

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Camden: Telling trends of close election

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Although the 2021 general election was a month ago, the last Spokane-area contest wasn’t settled until last week, with the recount that confirmed Rod Higgins was reelected to a Spokane Valley council seat.

Higgins’ victory — by 68 votes out of some 20,700 cast — should provide some lessons to those who are still contesting the results of the 2020 presidential election as some sort of “Big Steal.”

First is the very important lesson that results on election night are subject to change. Higgins’ challenger James Johnson was ahead on election night by about 3.5 percent, or 253 votes.

But election night trends sometimes bump up against electoral history. A conservative candidate in a conservative district will always gain votes as ballots are counted in the coming days, just as a liberal candidate will gain votes in a liberal district. As the more conservative candidate, as well as the better-known, Higgins was sure to narrow the gap. The only question was by how much.

Similar patterns have been seen for decades in Spokane area legislative races. In the days before vote-by-mail, Democrats sometimes basked in the glow of leading in solidly Republican legislative districts on election night, only to see their leads disappear as the absentees were counted.

In a 1986 legislative race, Democrat Jan Polek led Republican John Moyer by 126 votes when counting stopped shortly after midnight on election night. When it was suggested she shouldn’t be too comfortable because that district hadn’t gone Democratic since FDR’s first term, she replied: “I’d rather be in my position than his.”

You’d probably rather be in his, I told her. Moyer picked up just enough of some 1,500 absentee ballots to win by 98 votes.

Other close elections have followed similar patterns. That pattern — and not what has become an urban legend of illegal ballots being cast by felons and dead people — is the real explanation behind the closest statewide election in Washington history, the 2004 gubernatorial race between Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi.

Gregoire, a Democrat, finished election night ahead but Rossi, a Republican, chipped away for weeks. When the counting of absentees stopped, Rossi was up by 261 votes. After a machine recount, he was up by 42 votes. After the final hand recount, Gregoire was up by 129 votes.

Gregoire was ahead on election night in a state that hadn’t elected a Republican governor in 20 years, but Rossi likely gained in the absentees as he continued to do better than George W. Bush, his party’s presidential candidate, and Gregoire did worse than her party’s standard bearer, John Kerry. Gregoire inched past Rossi in the recounts in part for the same reasons she was ahead on election night: Recounts can turn up a few votes the machines miss, and the state trends Democratic.

The second lesson from the final count in the Higgins-Johnson race is that at some point, election results are final. Johnson is accepting the results of the recount.

Some people continuing to challenge the 2020 presidential results claim they aren’t doing anything different than in previous close contests. What about the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore? they say. What about the 2004 Gregoire-Rossi race?

Both are different from efforts by some to declare Donald Trump the winner of the 2020 election. Gore challenged the results in a single state in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. He lost in a 5-4 ruling and made a moving concession speech.

Washington Republicans challenged the 2004 gubernatorial results in court but were unable to prove allegations of voter fraud. Rossi said he wouldn’t take it to the state Supreme Court.

The 2020 presidential results have been sliced and diced about every way imaginable but have yet to be proven wrong.

It ain’t over till it’s over, as Yogi Berra used to say. But a corollary to that rule is: When it’s over, it actually is over.

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