Opinion

State’s voters entitled to clean elections

Secretary of State Sam Reed is a nice guy — maybe too nice.

In his role as chief elections officer for Washington state, Reed has worked hard to encourage voting. That’s the feel-good part of elections, and it’s important.

Most everybody wants higher turnout and greater citizen involvement.

Election integrity is just as important, but doesn’t get a consistent effort from Reed. Even after the turmoil of the 2004 election and Christine Gregoire’s questionable, third-count victory, Reed’s office has failed to do all it could to clean up our elections.

Earlier this year, a volunteer researcher for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation’s Voter Integrity Project uncovered more than 16,000 apparent under-age voter registrations created between January 2000 and March 2008.

He found that at least 108 of these too-young voters had actually voted, casting 127 ballots in all.

These are illegal votes, each one canceling out the ballot of a legal voter.

And they’re easy to stop — checking birthdays isn’t rocket science. Can’t we expect the same diligence from our election officials that we expect from convenience store clerks selling cigarettes?

Our state constitution requires voters to be at least 18 years old. State law allows 17-year-olds to register to vote if they will turn 18 by the next election, including not just the general election but the August primary and any special elections held in February, March, April or May.

These six possible election days are one big problem for election officials. The four “special elections” exist to help school and other taxing districts increase property taxes by running levies in super-low turnout elections.

County auditors want legislators to cut the total number of elections to four, reducing election cycle overlap and confusion. Legislators have so far preferred to keep tax-hiking easy and elections difficult.

The trouble for 17-year-olds and county auditors is that “special elections” only happen if needed. A person who turns 18 in June might be able to register to vote in January — if there are no special elections in that place in that year.

But what happens if a special election is later called for May? What if the new voter relocates where a special election is scheduled?

Despite these questions, neither Reed nor the Legislature has ever given county auditors any guidelines for handling voter registrations from people who are too young.

Reed has not adjusted the state voter database to prevent ballots from going to people who aren’t yet 18. Election officials are making it up as they go along, with most just waiting to process the form until the applicant is old enough.

Reed admitted that some counties do this “by physically placing (completed voter registration forms) in a drawer.”

Others enter the information into their database, but don’t make them “active” voters.

These actions violate federal and state laws that require processing voter registrations “on an expedited basis.”

Why “expedited?” Just think about what might happen if officials routinely delayed processing certain voter registrations.

This would create all kinds of new risks of disenfranchising legal voters by fraud or mistake.

A side effect of these delays is bad information in the state voter database. When a voter registration is delayed and later made active, the “registration date” is the date the form first arrived.

That means some of the 16,000 under-age voters we found were probably not made active until they had turned 18 — but there is no way in the database to tell.

Reed’s system has guaranteed inaccurate data in the state voter database.

After alerting election officials in Sam Reed’s office about these problems and receiving non-committal responses, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation filed a complaint in June under the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA).

According to the U.S. Constitution, states have primary responsibility for elections unless Congress decides to step in. That’s exactly what happened in 2002, when Congress passed HAVA.

The law required Reed to create a database of “every legally registered voter in the state.”

The phrase “legally registered” is key, creating the duty that Reed claims he doesn’t have to prevent illegal registrations.

The Act also requires Reed to have policies that “ensure voter registration records in the State are accurate and are updated regularly.”

Ironically, our complaint had to be decided by ... Sam Reed’s own staff.

The result was a promise “to develop written practices and procedures” sometime next year. We’re glad that he plans to write policies on under-age voter registrations in 2009, but the Help America Vote Act was passed in 2002.

Actually having written policies and procedures will be a step in the right direction, but Reed continues to assert that he has no legal duty to make any improvements. Voters have a right to secure and trustworthy elections.

Trent England is Director of the Citizenship and Governance Center

at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

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