I’ve had the opportunity to meet King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng, and found him rather likable and reassuring, in a grandfatherly sort of way. One of the last of the old-style moderates who used to dominate the state GOP, he’s the only Republican to win a majority in King County in any statewide or countywide race since at least 1998. I don’t remember if I voted for him the last time around, but it’s safe to say I was not the only Democrat who felt comfortable with Maleng serving in an office that demands competence and integrity over partisan political allegiance.
And so it was with great disappointment that I saw Maleng join his party yesterday in grandstanding on the issue of voter registration challenges.
Republican challenges to hundreds of King County voters’ registrations have exposed a “serious flaw” in voter rolls statewide that needs to be fixed quickly to restore public trust, county Prosecutor Norm Maleng said Tuesday.
He called on the attorney general, secretary of state and Legislature for help, and said his office is prepared to investigate voters who persist in maintaining registration addresses at private-mailbox businesses and other locations where they don’t live.
“It is not acceptable that these incomplete and illegal registrations are allowed to stand without being corrected,” the Republican prosecutor said at a news conference.
No, what is needed to “restore public trust”, Norm, is for you and your party to stop cynically distorting the performance of elections officials for cheap, political gain. On the day when King County certified its results, reporting a remarkably well-run election with perhaps the fewest discrepancies ever, you decide to step on the good-news story by staging a press conference that dishonestly implies that there are hundreds of illegal voters on the rolls. And you say your goal is to restore public trust?
Are some voters improperly registered at mailboxes? Obviously. Is there a single scrap of evidence that this is due to anything but an innocent error by voters or elections officials, or that a single one of these voters is otherwise ineligible vote? No. But when Maleng comes out and starts talking about “illegal” registrations, people are going to think he’s talking about “voter fraud”, and that’s just plain wrong… and Maleng knows it. Rather than working with Logan to address the issue, he’s decided to cynically join his party in turning it into an adversarial process.
Earlier this week the Canvassing Board voted 2-to-1 to reject a majority of the registration challenges because Lori Sotelo failed to provide the voters’ actual addresses as required by statute. Maleng calls this legal reasoning “strained” and is asking Attorney General Rob McKenna and Sec. of State Sam Reed to impose a less rigid interpretation. But in doing so, Maleng is actually going against the legal advice of the elections experts in his own office.
In a series of memos and emails (PDF) to the Canvassing Board, Janine Joly — the Sr. Deputy Prosecuting Attorney assigned by Maleng to advise King County Elections — addresses the legal issues in depth, and lays out the grounds for dismissing insufficient challenges.
“The challenger’s failure to allege an actual address either in her challenge form or at the hearing is a fatal flaw and should invalidate the challenge. Any other decision would be contrary to the plain language of the statute even if it appears from the other evidence provided that the challenged voter is not registered at a valid residence address.”
Joly also advises that indeed, according to the WAC, “a mailbox facility could be a nontraditional address since it is an identifiable location,” and if a voter deems this to be his residence he should be “registered and precincted based on the location provided.” In reaching this conclusion Joly addresses an apparent contradiction in the WAC:
“Though the WAC could be read to require those with nontraditional addresses to be registered at public buildings, that interpretation would conflict with one of the purposes of the voter registration statutes and rules, which is to ensure that voters only vote for the candidates and measures that correspond to the area in which they reside and consequently affect them. [...] Based on this principle which has been incorporated in Washington State election laws, the apparent contradiction in the WAC should be resolved in favor of registering a person to vote where he resides — the nontraditional address or mailbox facility.”
The irony of Maleng’s grandstanding is that it was Dean Logan and Dow Constantine who followed the Prosecutors Office’s legal advice, and Maleng’s own representative on the Canvassing Board, Dan Satterberg, who ignored it. Thus in asking Repubicans McKenna and Reed to issue an opinion that would leave the door open to future, poorly researched, mass challenges, Maleng is not only siding with his party against the rights of voters, he is also siding with the GOP against the attorney in his office whose job it is to interpret election statutes.
No doubt Maleng has been under great pressure from members of his own party, but if this entered his political calculus, he may have made a huge mistake. Nothing he does can possibly shore up his support amongst the rabid right that is seizing control of the KCGOP leadership. And he is sending a clear message to moderate Democrats and independents that we no longer enjoy a political climate where we have the luxury of electing centrist Republicans, without the risk of unforeseen political consequences.
Maleng will never draw fervent support from the activists in his own party, and his recent actions will surely turn off some of the Democratic swing voters to whom he owes his previous victories. If the Democrats field a strong challenger in the next election, Maleng could easily find himself joining the likes of Dan Evans and Ralph Munroe, on the outside looking in at more radical, more mean-spirited, and ever smaller Republican Party.
And it will be his own damn fault.
The Seattle P-I editorial board basically agrees with me, saying that “Maleng has actually turned the partisan volume not down, but up.”
King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng is right in saying that it’s time for political parties to “lower their voices” over disputed voter registrations. So why raise his own voice on the issue?
Maleng is a respected public official, but he is a partisan politician. The Republican Party has tried to criminalize election issues by alleging that nearly 2,000 voters violated the law by registering at mailboxes and mini-storage units.