A byzantine disenfranchisement scheme has cast a pall over the electoral process in Washington.
On November 2, 2004, Democrat Christine Gregoire won the state's gubernatorial race by the narrowest margin in state history--129 votes. Republican challenger Dino Rossi's camp quickly cried foul and sued to have the election results nullified. Their claim: voter fraud.
At the center of controversy is a list produced by Rossi containing the names of 1,135 alleged felons who supposedly voted. The list was hotly contested in Chelan County Superior Court. Rossi's lawsuit was later dimissed. But it has already caused an uproar.
Democrats claim the list is riddled with errors and smears the names of innocent people." Investigations launched by a number of counties after the list was released seem to confirm that assertion. In court documents filed in March 2005, Democrats reported a 75 percent error rate" in the Whatcom County list. Of the 13 people on the list, Whatcom County investigators found that 2 had never been convicted of a felony, 4 had been convicted but had their voting rights restored, and 3 hadn't even voted in the November elections.
Other inaccuracies have also surfaced. For instance, Democratic lawyers contend that hundreds of people on the list had juvenile convictions, which under state law do not result in the loss of voting rights. Earlier in the year Rossi staffers submitted a list of 15 people to Yakima County officials who they said voted illegally. Investigators found that only 4 had voted improperly, said County Auditor Corky Mattingly. It's really inconsistent information," said Mattingly. But 1,100 felons voting makes a great headline.
In other developments, an attorney for Governor Gregoire said his team had discovered that the conservative Building Industry Association of Washington had been working for Rossi's campaign since the election. For months the group has been amassing information about felon voters to bolster Rossi's lawsuit.
In January and February the Association sent out false homeowner surveys to 400 King County residents--where 912 of the list's alleged felons reportedly voted--in order to gain their signatures to compare with absentee ballots.
Erin Shannon, a spokeswoman for the Association, said they were right to deceive people. We wanted to get folks' signatures, and this was the best means by which we could get it," she said. It's quick, it's efficient and it's legal. We're not apologetic about that.
Some felons did vote illegally. However, most of those interviewed thought their voting rights had been restored--a testament to Washington's convoluted reinstatement process. Under state law, felons are banned from voting unless their civil rights are restored. To regain voting rights, those convicted of a felony must first complete all community service, pay any court-ordered fines, and obtain a certificate restoring voting rights.
In a March 17 hearing, most of the 10 felons who testified, and the 7 others who filed affidavits, said they thought they were eligible to vote. Kenneth Mason, 48, a Seattle resident who has completed his sentence noted that his voting rights were automatically stripped when he was convicted of second-degree theft in 2001. So shouldn't it be automatic that you give it back?" he questioned. Mason added that if he had known his voting rights hadn't been restored, I wouldn't have voted at all." Voting illegally is a class C felony, but it's unlikely anyone will be charged. To win a conviction, prosecutors must establish that a person knew they voted illegally. I didn't hear anything today that anyone knowingly or intentionally violated the law," said King County Elections Director Dean Logan, who attended the hearing. What I heard was surprise about what it takes for people to get their voting rights restored.
Some Washington residents may never be able to vote again because they can't pay debts imposed by the court. An example is Rosemary Heinen, who was convicted of embezzling $3.7 million from her former employer. Released from prison in 2004 after completing her sentence, Heinen is ineligible to have her voting rights restored because she still owes $2 million in restitution.
Secretary of State Sam Reed said the easiest way to solve Washington's voting problems would be to automatically restore voting rights immediately upon release from prison, regardless of unpaid debts. His suggestion appears to have gone unheeded. See accompanying story on a lawsuit challenging that issue.
For now, state officials are relying on a new database--which federal laws require to be operational by January 1, 2006--to prevent many of the improper votes. The database will list all state voters on a single roster accessible to state and county officials via computer. The roster will also be linked to Washington Department of Corrections and Washington State Patrol databases. The State Patrol database will list in-state felonies dating back to at least the mid-1970s.
It's uncertain how any disputed votes will ultimately be apportioned since felons could have voted for either candidate. Chelan County Superior Court Judge John Bridges on June 6, 2005, declared Gregoire the winner of the election and Rossi conceded the election.
Though Democrats have vehemently contested the list's reliability, it should be noted that as state attorney general, Governor Gregoire vigorously defended the ban on felon voting. It's probable that if Gregoire had lost by 129 votes, the same scenario would be playing out.
Sources: Seattle-Post 1ntelligencer, Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune
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