National, state Republicans file against voters in signature verification legal challenge

When they gath­er at Ocean Shores this com­ing week­end for the four­teenth annu­al Roanoke Con­fer­ence, this state’s Repub­li­can activists will see on their sched­ules a pan­el enti­tled: “The Ele­phant in the Room: We keep los­ing, so what do we do next?” Defeat­ed U.S. Sen­ate can­di­date Tiffany Smi­ley is one of the speakers.

The imme­di­ate answer is appar­ent­ly a legal inter­ven­tion, one unlike­ly to help the party’s lack of pop­u­lar­i­ty or improve its elec­toral for­tunes in any way.

State and nation­al Repub­li­cans are fil­ing briefs in a law­suit that seeks to end the error-filled sig­na­ture ver­i­fi­ca­tion process on Washington’s mail-in ballots.

The suit, filed ear­li­er this month in King Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court, alleges that thou­sands of valid votes get reject­ed and that rejec­tions hit a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of younger, Black, Latino/Latina and dis­abled vot­ers.

The plain­tiffs include a trio of groups – VetVoice, El Cen­tro de la Raza and Wash­ing­ton Bus – as well as indi­vid­u­als who have had their sig­na­tures repeat­ed­ly flagged. They are rep­re­sent­ed by the Perkins Coie law firm.

State Repub­li­can Chair­man Caleb Heim­lich, new­ly reelect­ed to his post, announced last week that the Repub­li­can Par­ty would file a brief defend­ing the process of com­par­ing sig­na­tures on bal­lots with those on file.

“Rather than attempt to make changes to the law through the Leg­is­la­ture, left-wing groups and their Demo­c­rat [sic] allies are attempt­ing to do away with the entire ver­i­fi­ca­tion process through the courts,” said Heimlich.

“They have filed a law­suit attempt­ing to remove sig­na­ture ver­i­fi­ca­tion from our elec­tion process. This is a bla­tant­ly par­ti­san attempt to remove the only secu­ri­ty mea­sure elec­tions have to pro­tect against fraud­u­lent activity.”

Embat­tled Repub­li­can Nation­al Com­mit­tee Chair Ron­na McDaniel announced that the RNC, too, was weigh­ing in, say­ing: “Basic elec­tion safe­guards mat­ters – espe­cial­ly in Demo­c­rat-run [sic] states where few guardrails remain.”

The last few words speak to a wider agen­da. Five states have switched entire­ly or large­ly to mail-in vot­ing. They include Utah, which just reelect­ed ultra-con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Mike Lee and four Repub­li­can House mem­bers, as well as “blue” states Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon and Hawaii.

Col­orado is, like Wash­ing­ton was many years ago, see­ing its polit­i­cal col­ors change from pur­ple to blue.

Hos­til­i­ty to mail-in vot­ing, and cast­ing sus­pi­cion, became part of the 2020 Trump reelec­tion strat­e­gy, and the evolv­ing plot to chal­lenge elec­tion results if “the Don­ald” lost. “Mail vot­ing is a ter­ri­ble thing… I think if you vote, you should go (to the polls),” the 45th pres­i­dent said in the spring of 2020.

Short­ly after, he request­ed a vote-by-mail bal­lot in Florida.

Ron­na McDaniel spout­ed the par­ty line that Democ­rats were using the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic to spread the polit­i­cal virus of mail-in vot­ing. “The Democ­rats’ all-mail bal­lots pro­pos­al is a ruse to legal­ize bal­lot har­vest­ing nation­wide,” McDaniel said in 2020, adding: “Mail-in vot­ing increas­es the oppor­tu­ni­ty for fraud.”

The Repub­li­cans’ prob­lem is, vot­ers like mail-in voting.

It’s easy and con­ve­nient, and allows for study of voter’s pam­phlets and oth­er elec­tion mate­ri­als with bal­lots in hand. The Democ­rats have adjust­ed their tac­tics. When count­ed, mail-in votes tipped Penn­syl­va­nia to Joe Biden in 2020 and led net­works to declare his vic­to­ry. Big mail-in vote totals car­ried Sen­a­tor (and Rev­erend) Raphael Warnock to his 2022 vic­to­ry in Geor­gia, and to reelec­tion of Sen­a­tor Mark Kel­ly in Ari­zona. Both states had flipped to Biden in 2020.

A few Repub­li­cans are urg­ing the par­ty to wise up. “We sim­ply have to beat them at this vote-by-mail game,” said Blake Mas­ters, defeat­ed by Kel­ly in the Grand Canyon State. Said Newt Gin­grich, lick­ing wounds on Sean Hannity’s Fox News pro­pa­gan­da broad­cast, “It means that you have to rec­og­nize ear­ly voting.”

The sig­na­ture ver­i­fi­ca­tion process in Wash­ing­ton is flawed.

Peo­ples’ sig­na­tures change, sig­na­tures are scrib­bled: We can’t all be John Han­cock, or Don­ald Trump when he bold­ly signed a full-page news­pa­per ad urg­ing the death penal­ty for the “Cen­tral Park Five.” (The teenagers, charged with a bru­tal rape, were lat­er found to be innocent.)

When the suit against ver­i­fi­ca­tion was filed, 36,000 2022 elec­tion bal­lots across the state had already been rejected.

In the past three elec­tions, accord­ing to plain­tiffs’ brief, 113,000 bal­lots had been giv­en a thumbs down, 42,000 in King Coun­ty. “These vot­ers have their bal­lots reject­ed for vir­tu­al­ly no ben­e­fit to elec­tion integri­ty,” said the brief.

“The sig­na­ture matchup dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly hurts young vot­ers, vot­ers of col­or and active-duty ser­vice mem­bers and their fam­i­lies vot­ing overseas.”

By so doing, it added, sig­na­ture ver­i­fi­ca­tion vio­lates the right to vote as laid out in the Wash­ing­ton State Constitution.

Back­ing up their argu­ment, plain­tiffs found that young Latino/Latina and Black vot­ers have bal­lots reject­ed at twelve times the rate of white overs over the age of forty. Gen­er­a­tion X vot­ers, ages twen­ty-two to thir­ty, are six times as like­ly to get reject­ed as those over forty.

The rea­sons: Elec­tion offi­cials are not hand­writ­ing experts and have as many as three mil­lion statewide votes to count. Or in words of the brief: “They make mis­takes. They are rushed to ‘ver­i­fy’ mil­lions of sig­na­tures in just a few weeks. They aren’t experts in hand­writ­ing analy­sis. They are not trained as such.”

Plain­tiff Kaeleene Escalante Mar­tinez has seen her bal­lot reject­ed three times in as many elec­tions. Co-plain­tiff Bethan Cantrell has a chron­ic con­di­tion that makes writ­ing and sign­ing her name extreme­ly uncomfortable.

Co-plain­tiff Raisha Bratt has, in words of the brief, “a com­pli­cat­ed signature.”

It doesn’t stop there.

Elec­tion law expert Kevin Hamil­ton, part­ner at Perkins Coie, has become pub­lic advo­cate for the law­suit. “John Carl­son inter­viewed me a few weeks ago on his show about the case,” Hamil­ton said in an e‑mail. “Dur­ing that inter­view, he revealed that his sig­na­ture had been chal­lenged pur­suant to this process.”

A Los Ange­les Times reporter uncov­ered this nugget report­ing on the 2020 elec­tion: “Julie Wise, the top elec­tion offi­cial for King Coun­ty (which includes Seat­tle), said her own sig­na­ture has been chal­lenged twice, includ­ing once while she held her cur­rent position.”

Both Wise and Sec­re­tary of State Steve Hobbs are defen­dants in the ver­i­fi­ca­tion suit. Hamil­ton had his own vote chal­lenged in the 2004 elec­tion, in which he was co-lead coun­sel (with Jen­ny Durkan) defend­ing Gov­er­nor Chris Gregoire’s 133-vote vic­to­ry mar­gin against a Repub­li­can challenge.

The coun­ty had his sig­na­ture on “dozens (maybe hun­dreds) of legal briefs, pro­posed orders, dec­la­ra­tions and relat­ed papers” as part of the lit­i­ga­tion, which was tried in Chelan Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court.

Vot­ers are noti­fied if their sig­na­tures are reject­ed. They are giv­en twen­ty-one days to “cure” their bal­lots. In close con­tests, vol­un­teers from both par­ties set out to “chase” votes by con­tact­ing those whose bal­lots have been reject­ed and make them part of the process. Oth­er­wise, cur­ing is a cum­ber­some process. Perkins Coie is rep­re­sent­ing plain­tiffs in a sim­i­lar ver­i­fi­ca­tion law­suit in Colorado.

“None of the five states that held their elec­tions pri­mar­i­ly by mail has had any vot­er fraud scan­dals since mak­ing that change,” accord­ing to the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice at The New York Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law. “It is still more like­ly for an Amer­i­can to be struck by light­ning than to com­mit mail fraud voting.”

The state of Wash­ing­ton count­ed one hun­dred and forty-two poten­tial vot­er fraud cas­es out of 3.1 mil­lion votes cast in the 2018 midterm elections.

That amount­ed to 0.0004 per­cent of the bal­lots flagged.

The Repub­li­cans’ choice of this issue inter­ven­tion is wor­thy of seri­ous question.

Joel Connelly

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