Returning a ballot
Returning a ballot to a drop box

The Wash­ing­ton State Supreme Court should imme­di­ate­ly take up and toss out a flawed sig­na­ture ver­i­fi­ca­tion sys­tem before it dis­en­fran­chis­es thou­sands of vot­ers in the upcom­ing pri­ma­ry and gen­er­al elec­tions, coun­sel for plain­tiffs in a legal chal­lenge argued before a high court com­mis­sion­er on Wednesday.

“With­out direct review, tens of thou­sands of ful­ly qual­i­fied vot­ers will be dis­en­fran­chised for noth­ing more than their pen­man­ship,” argued attor­ney Kevin Hamil­ton, rep­re­sent­ing three groups who have sued the Wash­ing­ton Sec­re­tary of State and King Coun­ty Elections.

The law­suit cur­rent­ly rests before the state court of appeals. It has been vig­or­ous­ly defend­ed, with Sec­re­tary of State Steve Hobbs argu­ing that ver­i­fi­ca­tion is the linch­pin of cred­i­bil­i­ty in our state’s vote-by-mail system.

The state Repub­li­can Par­ty and Repub­li­can Nation­al Com­mit­tee, like­wise, have stepped for­ward to argue that if the legal chal­lenge is suc­cess­ful, “it will only dimin­ish con­fi­dence in our elec­tions system.”

While red states move to cre­ate dif­fi­cul­ties, par­tic­u­lar­ly to vot­ing by mail or drop­ping off bal­lots, Wash­ing­ton has enact­ed incre­men­tal reforms designed to boost par­tic­i­pa­tion. The most recent, a cause cham­pi­oned by the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute, is mov­ing local elec­tions to even-num­bered years.

Sig­na­ture ver­i­fi­ca­tion is one notable remain­ing impediment.

The case for its removal is root­ed in fair­ness, as out­lined by Hamil­ton dur­ing a recent appel­late court argument:

  • A total of 170,000 bal­lots have been reject­ed over the last sev­en years, with thou­sands more cit­i­zens sub­ject­ed to the “undue bur­dens” of hav­ing to “cure” their bal­lots in order to have them counted.
  • The rejec­tion rate falls heav­i­est among younger vot­ers. A statewide audit found a rate of 2.68 per­cent among vot­ers aged 18 to 21, and 2.04 per­cent in the 22 to 25 age cat­e­gories. The state’s high­est rates of reject­ed bal­lots are from Franklin and Adams Coun­ties, both with a high Lati­no population.
  • Minori­ties are more like­ly to have their sig­na­tures reject­ed. The rejec­tion rates were 2.49% for African Amer­i­cans, 1.59% for Native Amer­i­cans and 1.57% for Lati­no vot­ers. The com­pa­ra­ble fig­ure for white vot­ers was 0.63%.
  • Sig­na­tures change due to age and ill­ness. At a neigh­bor­hood break­fast ear­li­er this year, I lis­tened to a retired attor­ney’s lucid analy­sis of ex-Pres­i­dent Trump’s bid to block ver­i­fi­ca­tion of 2020 elec­toral votes. How­ev­er, the man’s hands shook as he spoke. It is entire­ly pos­si­ble his sig­na­ture could be flagged.

The cur­rent ver­i­fi­ca­tion regime is being chal­lenged by a trio of plain­tiffs: the VetVoice Foun­da­tion, the Wash­ing­ton Bus and El Cen­tro de la Raza.

The plain­tiffs have pro­duced six­ty sworn dec­la­ra­tions from per­sons whose bal­lots, or those of fam­i­ly mem­bers, were legal­ly signed but rejected.

The legal defense, as argued by assis­tant attor­ney gen­er­al William McGin­ty, is that vot­ers have up to twen­ty days to “cure” their reject­ed bal­lots, and “mul­ti­ple and easy ways” of so doing (e.g. using the last four dig­its of one’s Social Secu­ri­ty num­ber). “We need a way to prove to vot­ers of Wash­ing­ton that elec­tions are pure,” he told the appel­late panel.

The state’s legal brief puts it blunt­ly: “It (ver­i­fi­ca­tion) allows the broad­est pos­si­ble access while ensur­ing that only reg­is­tered vot­ers are able to cast their bal­lots and pro­mot­ing pub­lic con­fi­dence that vote by mail is safe and secure.”

But, argued Hamil­ton, “Vot­ers are inno­cent until proven guilty, not the oth­er way around.” Evi­dence of fraud is almost non-exis­tent, despite the fan­ning of sus­pi­cions by the far-right. Out of 56,000 bal­lots reject­ed in King, Sno­homish and Clark Coun­ties dur­ing the 2020 and 2022 elec­tion cycles, just a tiny frac­tion of one per­cent mer­it­ed refer­ral to coun­ty prosecutors.

While it isn’t pos­si­ble to know the future, the legal chal­lenge to sig­na­ture ver­i­fi­ca­tion has the ben­e­fit of a tailwind.

For instance, the Wash­ing­ton State Con­sti­tu­tion lays out the right to vote more fun­da­men­tal­ly than the Unit­ed States Constitution.

Hamil­ton, with the Perkins Coie law firm, has a nation­al and statewide record for win­ning elec­tion cas­es: He and Jen­ny Durkan were lead coun­sel in defend­ing Gov­er­nor Chris Gre­goire’s even­tu­al 133-vote vic­to­ry in 2004. Hamil­ton suc­cess­ful­ly defend­ed Joe Biden’s 11,000-vote win in Geor­gia three years ago.

The case for fast track­ing is obvi­ous. The state has a spring pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry. Vot­ers will cull the field for open posts of gov­er­nor, attor­ney gen­er­al and state land com­mis­sion­er in the August Top Two elec­tion. And the future of our democ­ra­cy itself is at stake in November.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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3 replies on “Supreme Court weighs lawsuit challenging Washington’s signature verification system”

  1. Rates in the range of 2% are exces­sive? What is the rate of ille­gal vot­ing? The facts include we need a pho­to ID require­ment in an attempt to return con­fi­dence in our sys­tem; a tech­nique which would address the con­cern pre­sent­ed in this article.

    1. To answer your ques­tion: The “rate of ille­gal vot­ing” is almost nonex­is­tent. There have been very few cas­es of elec­tion fraud or vot­er fraud, and they have gen­er­al­ly involved right wing Repub­li­cans try­ing to cheat!

      For exam­ple, in 2018, Repub­li­can oper­a­tives tried to cheat to get a con­gres­sion­al can­di­date elect­ed:

      Since Novem­ber, Repub­li­can can­di­date Mark Har­ris has fend­ed off accu­sa­tions that his slim, 905-vote lead was the result of fraud. That all changed on Thurs­day, when Harris—who is deal­ing with the after­math of two strokes—conceded to the pres­sure of the ongo­ing inquiry. In a hear­ing with the state’s elec­tion board, Har­ris drew audi­ble gasps from the audi­ence when he acqui­esced to calls for a new elec­tion. State offi­cials prompt­ly announced that a new con­test would soon be organized.

      If the alle­ga­tions against Har­ris’ cam­paign are true, one of Har­ris’ polit­i­cal oper­a­tives (a local “elec­tion guru” named Leslie McCrae Dow­less) covert­ly assem­bled a team of elec­tion offi­cers to col­lect and forge absen­tee bal­lots. Reg­u­la­tors were tipped off to the poten­tial wrong­do­ing when absen­tee bal­lots from one of the coun­ties in the dis­trict swung over 61 per­cent in favor of Har­ris (the coun­ty is only 19 per­cent Republican).

      North Car­oli­na’s pho­to ID require­ment did noth­ing to deter this fraud:

      Repub­li­cans in the state—who recent­ly passed a new vot­er ID law, after a 2013 for­ay into vot­er reg­u­la­tion was struck down in fed­er­al court—have been under­stand­ably loath to high­light the Har­ris scan­dal as an exam­ple of vot­er fraud. But that’s not just because Har­ris is a Repub­li­can. The kind of fraud in ques­tion is not the kind that vot­er ID laws would sup­pos­ed­ly pre­vent: It was all done behind the scenes, by elec­tion offi­cers, not indi­vid­ual voters.

      And then there was the case of Rose­marie Har­tle… this is an exam­ple of vot­er fraud com­mit­ted by a Repub­li­can and Trump supporter: 

      The mys­te­ri­ous case of Rose­marie Hartle’s vote in the last pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, three years after her death, was trum­pet­ed in Novem­ber 2020 by the Neva­da Repub­li­can Par­ty and var­i­ous promi­nent con­ser­v­a­tives. From then-Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on down, Repub­li­cans used sto­ries about pho­ny votes cast under the names of dead peo­ple as key evi­dence for their claim that Joe Biden’s vic­to­ry was marred by major fraud.

      The Har­tle mys­tery is now solved. And it turns out that the fraud was com­mit­ted by a Republican.

      Har­tle was mar­ried to Las Vegas busi­ness­man Don­ald Kirk Har­tle, a reg­is­tered Repub­li­can. In Novem­ber 2020, Har­tle told Las Vegas tele­vi­sion sta­tion 8 News Now (KLAS-TV) that he felt “dis­be­lief” when he found out that a mail-in bal­lot was sub­mit­ted in his late wife’s name. It was “pret­ty sick­en­ing,” he said at the time, adding that he didn’t know how it could’ve happened.

      But Har­tle had actu­al­ly cast the pho­ny bal­lot himself.

      On Tues­day, Har­tle plead­ed guilty to the crime of vot­ing more than once in the same elec­tion. The judge, 8 News Now report­ed, said Har­tle had pulled what seemed like a “cheap polit­i­cal stunt that kind of back­fired and shows that our vot­ing sys­tem actu­al­ly works because you were ulti­mate­ly caught.” 

      Then there’s the case of Jason Schofield:

      A Repub­li­can elec­tions offi­cial in an upstate New York coun­ty is accused of ille­gal­ly using per­son­al iden­ti­fy­ing infor­ma­tion of vot­ers to apply for absen­tee bal­lots that are alleged to have been used in 2021 elec­tions, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice said Tuesday.

      Jason Schofield, the Repub­li­can Board of Elec­tions com­mis­sion­er of Rens­se­laer Coun­ty, was arraigned Tues­day on an indict­ment charg­ing him with unlaw­ful­ly using the names and dates of birth of vot­ers to fraud­u­lent­ly apply for absen­tee bal­lots for 2021 elec­tions in his coun­ty, pros­e­cu­tors said in a news release.

      Schofield, 42, is alleged to have ille­gal­ly used the vot­er infor­ma­tion in con­nec­tion with absen­tee bal­lot appli­ca­tions sub­mit­ted to the state board of elec­tions web­site, accord­ing to the US attor­neys for the North­ern Dis­trict of New York.

      And more recent­ly, there was the case of Kim Phuong Tay­lor, the wife of a Repub­li­can can­di­date who was des­per­ate to get him elect­ed:

      As Tam and Thien Doan tried to file for absen­tee bal­lots in Iowa in 2020, they were sur­prised to find out that votes had already been cast in their names. The sib­lings, both Democ­rats, were even more aston­ished to learn that their bal­lots had been cast in sup­port of Repub­li­can can­di­dates only, includ­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, accord­ing to court testimony. 

      Unbe­knownst to the Doans, they were among a group of Viet­namese immi­grants tar­get­ed in a months-long vot­er-fraud scheme by the wife of an Iowa Repub­li­can coun­ty super­vi­sor who want­ed her hus­band to win “by any means nec­es­sary” in the 2020 pri­ma­ry and gen­er­al elec­tions, accord­ing to prosecutors.

      Elec­tion fraud and vot­er fraud are rare — but if you track the cas­es, you’ll notice a theme: they pre­dom­i­nant­ly involve Repub­li­can can­di­dates and oper­a­tives and pho­to ID would­n’t have stopped them.

  2. Sure­ly it’s more impor­tant to improve the process to update vot­er sig­na­tures than remove vot­er sig­na­ture ver­i­fi­ca­tion all togeth­er. The pro­pos­al made here would be stuck down by the Euro­pean Courts of Jus­tice because it invites vote har­vest­ing and removes the qual­i­ty check that ensures indi­vid­ual vot­ers vot­ed. King Coun­ty has a process for vot­ers to update their sig­na­tures. Wash­ing­ton State should encour­age all coun­ty elec­tions offi­cials to adopt it. Peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties can be flagged for accom­mo­da­tion. The ruse that peo­ple of col­or and immi­grants can’t main­tain a sig­na­ture is humiliating.

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