The Rossi campaign and their cheerleaders on the neocon blogs have made much ado about a 1996 memo from the Secretary of State’s office that supposedly shows Christine Gregoire’s “hypocrisy” on the issue of whether recounts should include re-examining the signatures on rejected provisional ballots. This is the issue at the heart of the Dems’ lawsuit, and if this memo truly proved Gregoire had changed her stance, it would certainly hurt her in the court of public opinion, if not a court of law.
But the memo doesn’t prove anything of the sort. Let’s take a look at the paragraph in question:
We are advised by the Attorney General that state law makes no provision for the challenge of ballots or voters (as provided in RCW 29.10.125) during the recount. The recount procedure provided for by statute is a mechanical function of re-tallying the ballots cast and accepted as valid by the precinct election officers or the canvassing board with respect to the inclusion or exclusion of a particular ballot during the canvass is not open to question during the recount.
The memo doesn’t say when they were advised, or by which Attorney General, nor in what context. The Gregoire campaign claims that this advice was given by the office of her Republican predecessor, Ken Eikenberry. This makes sense when you consider the memo in question concerned routine guidelines for conducting an election; it was not in response to any existing debate over recounts, so it would have been unlikely that Republican Secretary of State Ralph Munro, in 1996 an old hand at the job, would have suddenly sought a new opinion directly from the AG — indeed, no evidence has been provided claiming such an opinion was solicited.
In fact, the last time this issue arose was in 1990, during the very close race in the 24th Legislative District that was eventually decided by five votes. Ken Eikenberry and Ralph Munro were both in their respective offices at that time, and it seems plausible that the advice expressed in the 1996 memo stems from that earlier disputed election.
Neocon apologists like Stefan on (un)Sound Politics would place the burden of disproof on Gregoire, with absurd double-negatives like “I haven’t yet seen specific information that the AG office in 1996 had no knowledge of the opinion upon which Munro was relying.” And I haven’t seen evidence that Stefan is not the reincarnation of Joe McCarthy… but that doesn’t mean he is. (Then again, it doesn’t mean he isn’t.)
But regardless of who gave the advice and when, a close reading of the memo calls into question whether it specifically contradicts the Democratic lawsuit at all. The paragraph’s two sentences should be understood as two independent clauses. The first sentence clearly reflects the advice of an “AG”, but it would be presumptuous to infer that the second sentence is anything but a conclusion by the SOS. The AG’s advice is thus limited to the issue of whether RCW 29.10.125 makes a “provision for the challenge of ballots and voters” during a recount.
A literal reading of current state law suggests the AG’s advice is on target, because the statute makes no provision one way or the other. The RCW says “recount” and it says “all ballots cast”, but it fails to define either term. Yes, there is no provision that defines how a party might challenge ballots during a recount; but neither is there a provision that absolutely prevents canvassing boards from re-examining ballots on their own accord… an opinion that current SOS Sam Reed seemed to share in the TNT yesterday.
Oh, and by the way… the advice in the memo was based on an interpretation of RCW 29.10.125. Problem is, there is no RCW 29.10.125 on the books anymore, so the accusation of hypocrisy becomes shakier still in light of the fact that the law itself has changed in the intervening years.
On a curious side note… guess who was the Assistant AG assigned to the SOS at the time of the 1990 dispute? None other than Tim Eyman’s attorney, Jim Johnson, newly elected to the state Supreme Court on the strength of a familiar, alliterative name, and a half million dollars of BIAW money.
I mention this because it raises the very important issue of process. AGs and SOSs don’t generally give this kind of advice or write these kind of memos on their own; their staff handles it. So even if there was communication between the two offices in 1996, it’s unlikely that it would have been called to Gregoire’s attention on an issue that appeared to be settled practice as recently as 1990. Remember, Assistant AGs (and SOS staff) stay on from one administration to the next, and an Eikenberry holdover would have no reason to expect the office to reconsider this issue without a recent controversy.
And just to be sure I’m not accused of hypocrisy myself, I’d like to present a quote from a screed I wrote last year in which I repeatedly attacked the Attorney General for selectively seeking an injunction against my “Horse’s Ass” initiative: “And of course, wherever I refer to the ‘Attorney General,’ I am usually referring to her office.” Even I didn’t have the temerity to believe that my joke initiative was on her radar. The injunction was the work of an underling, as is most of the work of the office.
So what we have here is a eight-year-old memo, probably written by an SOS staffer, which included routine advice which may or may not have been given in 1996, or in 1990, by an Assistant AG in either Gregoire’s or Eikenberry’s office, about a vague lack of provision in a narrow portion of a statute that’s not even on the books anymore. And we’re asked to accept this as damning evidence of Gregoire’s contemptible hypocrisy?
If Ralph Munro comes out tomorrow and states that he personally got this advice from Gregoire herself, then I’ll give this memo more credence. Otherwise it’s little more than gossip, hearsay and conjecture.