Steven Lacey is a regular voter whose plan for Election Day next Tuesday was to walk a few blocks from his Belltown apartment building and cast his vote, as usual, at his local precinct. At least, that was his plan until he received a letter Thursday night informing him that his right to vote had been challenged by a woman from the east side named Lori D. Sotelo.
The letter reported that Sotelo had declared to King County election officials, “under penalty of perjury,” that Lacey’s voter registration was not valid because he couldn’t possibly be living at the address he was claiming. “Which is insane,” Lacey said. The 35-year-old insurance company account manager lives at the Watermarke, a 60-unit downtown apartment building built in 1908. However, Sotelo appeared to believe the Watermarke was a storage unit, a P.O. box, or some other location that Lacey could not legally be using as an address of record.
Furious, Lacey did a quick web search and realized that Sotelo was a leader in the King County Republican Party. He couldn’t understand how she came to think he was illegally registered, since the Watermarke, Lacey said, “couldn’t more clearly be a physical residence.” He left Sotelo a phone message telling her as much, but he never heard back.
Then he asked around, and found that many people in his building had received the same letter, informing them that their votes would not be counted until they proved, at a hearing or through a signed affidavit, that they were legally registered.
“A lot of the people that live in the building are over 50 and have voted in dozens of elections and are incredibly pissed,” he said. “Everybody’s pretty pissed.”
It turns out that Lacey and his neighbors were just a few among at least 140 King County voters who were wrongly challenged by Sotelo, who chairs the King County Republican Party’s “Voter Registration Integrity Project.” Sotelo could not be reached for comment on Friday morning, when The Stranger first reported the mistakes on our blog, but Chris Vance, chairman of the state Republican Party later confirmed for The Stranger that a serious mistake had been made.
“We are withdrawing those challenges today and apologizing to those folks,” he said. He added that it is “just coincidence” that a significant number of the wrongly challenged voters live in a strongly Democratic neighborhood.
The Republicans’ “Integrity Project,” announced on October 26, was part of a running effort by Republicans to highlight what they claim is an ineffectual effort by Ron Sims’s King County Elections Office to purge illegal voters from King County voter rolls. Republicans announced in October that their project had discovered 1,943 King County residents who were not living at the address to which they were registered—which would be illegal, if it were true.
“If they were doing their jobs,” Vance said of King County election officials, “we wouldn’t have to do this.” But if that’s why Republicans undertook the project, how did they then come to do such an ineffectual job themselves?
“We’re off by less than 10 percent,” Vance said, establishing what appeared to be a lower standard of accuracy for his party than for the King County elections officials his party claims to be watch-dogging. “For having this done by volunteers and interns, this is very good work.”
Although Sotelo’s name appeared on the challenge affidavits, Vance said, the list of voters to challenge was actually created by volunteers and interns cross-referencing storage unit addresses with voter registration rolls. Sotelo just signed on the dotted line, he said.
But Sandeep Kaushik, a spokesman for Sims, said the fiasco, whose scope is still not clear because Republicans have not yet released a list of all their challenged voters, showed an embarrassing degree of amateurishness on the part of the Republicans.
“This is an unfortunate example of what happens when what is a serious issue, people’s right to vote, is hijacked for partisan advantage,” Kaushik said. “This is a concern that we’ve had in King County for some time, ever since this issue came down the pike—that there’s a real possibility that innocent, ordinary people would get caught up in what appears to be a partisan campaign to challenge voters.”
As for Vance’s claim that Republicans had to act because King County hasn’t been doing a good enough job at purging illegal voters, Kaushik said: “King County is doing its job. We’ve done an immense amount of work over the last six months in terms of cleaning up our voter rolls. We’ve removed thousands of registrations that were incorrect registrations. To try to claim that we’re not making any effort to clean our voter rolls or are attempting to allow people to vote multiple times and vote illegally is just flat-out false.”
He said county election workers had been flooded with calls in the last two days from angry King County residents who had received Republican-generated challenge letters, including one call from an elderly African-American woman who felt her letter was part of an effort to suppress her vote.
Vance stressed that the letters were not part of a vote-suppression effort, and therefore Sotelo’s letters, with their false declarations made “under penalty of perjury,” were not illegal. “If she had been wrong on purpose, that would be perjury,” Vance said. “But we made an error.”
Lacey, the Watermarke resident, said he was glad Republicans were apologizing.
“That’s the proper thing to do,” he said.
But he added that he still wonders what really went on.
“How did the mistake happen?” he asked, incredulous.