Because I spend so much time whining and pontificating about politics, and telling our elected officials how to do their job (I’m a blogger… that’s what we do,) I feel have a special obligation to directly participate in the political process. And so from time to time I venture down to Olympia to testify on bills I feel strongly about one way or another.
Yesterday I dragged myself out of bed and drove down for an 8 AM hearing before the Senate Committee on Government Operations & Elections, to testify on behalf of SB 6362, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Wells bill to reform voter registration challenge provisions. It was one of those odd moments, where you had a distinguished panel consisting of Snohomish County Auditor Bob Terwilliger (representing the Assoc. of County Auditors,) Secretary of State Sam Reed, and… um… me. And we were all pretty much in agreement, supporting the bill.
SB 6352 has a number of major provisions, summarized as follows:
- Major political parties may file a contact name with the county auditor to receive notice of voter challenges. Challenged voters will also receive contact information of party representatives. Parties who object to the challenge may present testimony and evidence to the canvas board.
- Challenges against voters who registered more than 60 days before the election may be filed no later than 45 days before the election; challenges against voters who filed less than 60 days before the election may be challenged no later than ten days before the election.
- A challenged voter may transfer or re-register until the day before the election.
- Party observers may challenge the qualifications of any absentee voter who registered to vote less than sixty days before the election at the time the signature on the return envelope is verified and the ballot is processed.
- A registered voter challenging the registration of another based on residency must provide the address at which the challenged voter actually resides.
- A challenged ballot shall not be counted if the challenge is based on felony conviction, mental incompetency, age, or citizenship, and the canvassing board sustains the challenge. If the challenge is based on residency and the canvassing board sustains the challenge, then the challenged voter shall be permitted to correct his or her registration and any races or measures on the challenged ballot that the voter would have been qualified to vote for had his or her registration been correct shall be counted.
- Voters who lack a traditional address will be registered at the location provided, but have the option of using the address of a county courthouse or other public building.
That’s a lot of stuff, but really, most of it shouldn’t be all that controversial. Sam Reed said he had some reservations about the provisions creating a role for the political parties… he was afraid it would inject “partisan politics” into a heretofore nonpartisan process. But as Sen. Adam Kline pointed out in response, the GOP already injected politics into the process when they made their highly partisan last-minute challenge in King County. I’ll get back to that later.
Both Reed and Terwilliger specifically voiced their support for changing the deadlines for filing challenges, noting that last minute challenges could present a huge procedural hurdle as elections departments prepare to administer an election. Hard to argue with that. Besides, nothing in the law prohibits a party or anyone else from presenting information about improperly registered voters without filing a formal challenge. If the information was truly compelling, public pressure would force elections officials to act.
But for me, the most important provisions are the ones that allow a challenged voter to change their registration up to a day before the election, and which allows the ballots of voters whose challenges were upheld to be counted in all applicable races for which the voter was otherwise eligible. It should be remembered that the purpose of our voter registration laws is to maintain the integrity of our voter rolls, not to disqualify otherwise eligible voters on a gotcha.
Of the nearly 2000 last minute registration challenges filed by Republicans last October, only a few dozen ballots were disqualified, and of these there was not a single piece of evidence indicating voter fraud. Rather, these were voters improperly registered at mail boxes and other non-residential addresses, likely because the voter was unaware that this was prohibited. (The voter registration form does not specifically instruct the applicant that a residential street address must be used.) I cannot imagine a compelling moral or social argument for disqualifying the ballots of eligible voters if their registrations can be corrected before certification.
If we continue to allow ballots to be disqualified due to registration technicalities, then partisan groups will continue to attempt to exploit these technicalities for partisan gain.
As to my own testimony, well, I was kind of winging it, but I’ll try to reproduce it here to the best of my memory. I had expected others to testify on the specifics of the bill, so I decided to focus on the rationale.
As Sen. Kohl-Welles had explained in her own testimony, this bill was largely prompted by the GOP’s massive, last-minute voter registration challenge just days before the November election. I told the committee that I was one of the few people in the room yesterday who also attended the King County Canvas Board hearings in November, and who witnessed the challenger, Lori Sotelo, repeatedly admit that she had no personal knowledge of the challenged voter, their residence, or their eligibility. And so I wanted to take the opportunity to briefly read some excerpts from a transcript in which an attorney representing a challenged voter confronted the challenger:
ATTORNEY: You filed a challenge to the voting residence of Catherine Ann Herold, who lives at 234 30th St. NW; is that correct?
CHALLENGER: I did.
ATTORNEY: And have you ever been to that residence?
ATTORNEY: Do you know Catherine Ann Herrold?
CHALLENGER: No, I don’t.
ATTORNEY: You have indicated in this challenge form that you believe that she does not live at that residence; is that correct?
CHALLENGER: That’s correct.
ATTORNEY: Do you have any personal knowledge as we stand here today that Ms. Herrold does not live at the address…
CHALLENGER: Only that which was my impression…
ATTORNEY: And who gave you that impression?
CHALLENGER: Attorney Jim Simon… He’s an officer of the party.
ATTORNEY: An officer of which party?
CHALLENGER: The Republican party.
Anybody who attending the canvass board hearings — who heard Sotelo admit that her “personal knowledge” often consisted of little more than a Google search conducted by an intern or a volunteer — would find this transcript very familiar. “However…” I told the Committee, dramatically waving the transcript in my hand, “This was not a transcript from the King County Canvas Board in November of 2005, but rather a transcript from a similar proceeding in Summit County, OH in October of 2004,” in which the OH state GOP challenged thousands of voters in the weeks before the election, having conducted little or no due diligence. (All the challenges were thrown out.)
In fact, what we witnessed this past election was not an isolated incident, it was not unique to WA state politics, and it was not even a direct response to our excruciatingly close 2004 gubernatorial election. This was part of a coordinated, national voter suppression and intimidation campaign conducted by the GOP and their surrogates, who have set up similar “Voter Integrity Projects” nationwide.
And it is only the tip of the iceberg. State GOP chair Chris Vance has all but promised additional challenges, and KC GOP chair Mike Young was overheard boasting that they had an additional 20,000 challenges waiting in the wings. Waiting for what? Well… the final days before the 2006 election I presume.
Unless the major provisions of SB 6362 are enacted into law.