As voters go, Cheryl Wilson is rather meticulous. Others might have put off the chore of changing the address on their voter registrations, but Wilson called up the King County Elections office shortly after she moved into her new North Seattle condo in December. When her new registration card arrived, the 37-year-old technical recruiter examined it closely and noticed that two digits in her address had been transposed. So she called the elections office right back up; she didn't want any mistakes on such an important document, and told them so. In June she received her corrected registration card, and as a proud Democrat was looking forward to using it on Election Day.
Then on Sunday, November 6, two days before the election, Wilson heard a knock on her door. Outside were members of the 36th District Democrats, who had come to tell Wilson that she was on a list of close to 2,000 people whose right to vote was being challenged by a woman from Mercer Island named Lori D. Sotelo, who happens to serve as vicechair of the King County Republicans.
Wilson had heard something about Sotelo and her challenges a few days earlier when, as first reported by The Stranger on November 4, it became clear Sotelo's lengthy challenge list, composed of voters Sotelo believed were illegally listing storage units or rented mailboxes as their addresses, contained a significant number of errors.
In fact, at many of the addresses Sotelo had challenged (under penalty of perjury), one would find not storage units being illegally used as addresses, but instead legitimate voters living in normal accommodations—apartment buildings, condos, single-family houses, houseboats. The day the news broke, the chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, Chris Vance, was forced by media attention to issue an apology to 140 voters who had been wrongly challenged by Sotelo (blaming volunteers and an intern for the mess up), and announced that his party was withdrawing those 140 challenges. But Wilson was not on that list of 140 wrongly challenged voters. And now two days later, with only two days until the election, she was being told by the Democrats standing at her condo door that Sotelo had challenged her right to vote too.
"Do I think there's something going on here that is fishy?" she asked. "You bet."
Democrats, who said that Sotelo's wrong challenges actually numbered in the hundreds, saw her error-riddled "Voter Registration Integrity Project" as evidence of attempted vote suppression. Republicans, in response, stood by their overall effort, saying the bulk of Sotelo's challenges were correct, not to mention necessary, at least from the Republican perspective, in order to keep the King County Elections department honest about enforcing the rules on voter-registration addresses.
"If people want to be outraged, they ought to be outraged about what happened last year," Vance said, brushing aside criticism of this year's Republican errors and trying to turn the focus back to what he considers the original electoral sin. "We are trying to stop King County from allowing another illegal election."
However, King County Council Member Larry Phillips called the list an example of "blatant voter intimidation," and on Tuesday sent a letter to King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng asking him to investigate.
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With all the heated accusations, shifting numbers, and threats of legal action, the fight over the Republican challenges sounded a lot like the first battle in Washington's election wars, which took place last year after Governor Christine Gregoire's miniscule victory over Republican darling Dino Rossi.
But unlike last year's six-month legal battle, which ultimately gave Democrats a victory at the polls while also producing a string of uncomfortable revelations of illegal votes and miscounting of ballots in heavily Democratic King County, this year's fight left the Republicans needing to offer an explanation for their own miscounting of "illegal" voters.
For months they had painted elections officials here as a bunch of recidivist bozos who had hardly cleaned up their acts after last year's snafus, a strategy that no doubt helped King County Council Member David Irons in his close race against incumbent King County Executive Ron Sims, who is in charge of King County Elections. But now Republicans found themselves shoved out of the self-righteous watchdog role and into a far more conciliatory posture than that struck by Sotelo on October 28, when she dramatically turned in her nearly 2,000 challenges at a press event held in front of the King County Elections office. "Once again," Sotelo lamented then, "it was unpaid volunteers who spent time to help King County Elections clean the voter rolls." But when it became clear that the Republicans' reliance on internet research by an intern and haphazard confirmation work by partisan volunteers had produced an error rate (perhaps as high as 20 percent) that was far greater than Republicans ever would have accepted from King County, Sotelo clammed up and Vance was left doling out apologies and pointing to the at least 1,000 challenges that Republicans did get right.
Not mollified, Democrats said they were considering filing a lawsuit over the erroneous challenges, and promised to closely monitor the challenge hearings, which by law must be conducted for each challenged voter before the election is certified on November 29. Jeffrey Weber, a West Seattle lawyer who found that he and his wife had been wrongly challenged by Sotelo, joined Council Member Phillips in urging Maleng to "prosecute Ms. Sotelo for perjury and to seek the maximum penalty allowed under law for this violation of our rights." (As of Tuesday, Maleng's office had not indicated what it would do in response to the requests.)
The challenge hearings, when they come, will be a test of the Republicans' contention that their "Integrity Project" was in fact conducted with altruistic motives. The challenge law has never been used by one person to challenge so many fellow voters, said King County Elections Supervisor Dean Logan, who called Sotelo's stack of 1,943 challenges "unprecedented" and "pretty peculiar" in timing. The law now requires that Sotelo produce proof, at the challenge hearings, that each voter she has accused is indeed using an illegal address. If she doesn't, and just drops many of the challenges, it will confirm for many Democrats what they now suspect: That the real Republican plan was to use the challenges as a suppression tactic, a means of discouraging voters from voting by questioning their right to vote a few days before the election. In such a scheme, the challenge hearing is unnecessary, since by the time the hearing occurs the voting is over and the discouraging effect has already been achieved through letters sent to each challenged voter, complete with a copy of Sotelo's affidavit declaring "this person is not qualified to vote."
Vance says suppression was not the aim of the "Integrity Project," and that Sotelo, who has not responded to repeated requests for comment, will appear at the challenge hearings to face the people she has accused. Many of the wrongly accused, like Cheryl Wilson, plan to be there. "I want to look that woman in the eye and say, 'What were you thinking? Why pay an intern to do something that's so important?'"
In the meantime, Washington State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who represents Wilson's district, said she is preparing legislation that would prevent future challenges from being brought at the last minute.
"Voters must be allowed time to fix errors in their voter registration before being disenfranchised," she said in a statement this week. "The voter challenge law will lose its legitimacy if it is being hijacked for voter intimidation and political gain."firstname.lastname@example.org