In mid-November, as Lori Sotelo walked into the first of several hearings into her controversial attempt to challenge the voting rights of almost 2,000 King County residents, I asked her how she felt. Sotelo, the Mercer Island woman who serves as vice-chair of the King County Republican Party and also heads what the Republicans call their "Voter Integrity Project," replied: "I'm very prepared." She looked quite nervous, however. Behind her, a colleague carried evidence in a box marked "shred."
As it turned out, Sotelo had reason to be nervous. On Monday, November 28, the King County Canvassing Board, which conducted the hearings, formally rejected the vast majority of challenges that Sotelo had served on people who voted in the November election (her challenges of people who didn't vote in that election will be handled in the coming weeks). King County Executive Ron Sims, wasting little time in turning the tables on a political party that has long painted him as inept at overseeing the King County Elections office, embraced the board's decision and described Sotelo's actions as "an abuse of the challenge process" that amounted to "a deliberate attempt to intimidate voters." Sims repeated calls from local Democratic officials and many angry voters for a formal perjury investigation by the King County Prosecutor's office into Sotelo's challenges, saying she had signed false oaths on each of the challenges that were ultimately rejected by the board.
A perjury investigation of Sotelo, Sims said, "is what elections law requires. Anything less would be a slap in the face of the voting public of King County—and that is essentially what Ms. Sotelo did in swearing out hundreds of false challenges."
Sims's demand for a legal slap-down of Sotelo may not get very far. At virtually the same moment that Sims was issuing his press release calling for a perjury investigation, Republican King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng was standing in front of a blue curtain in his downtown offices and informing reporters that he would not be charging Sotelo with anything. He said his office had investigated the matter and found no intent by Sotelo to make false statements.
With that, Maleng tried to grab the high ground by calling on Democrats and Republicans to "lower their voices" on the challenge issue while the differing interpretations of the state's complicated challenge laws are sorted out by the state attorney general's office. With more than 1,000 challenges from Sotelo remaining to be sorted out, however, the odds seemed long that politicians from both parties, who have already invested so much in using the challenge issue as a political rallying cry, would heed his call for quiet.
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To understand the story of this prolonged voter-challenge skirmish, one must delve into a complicated set of numbers that have been spun in wildly different ways by Republicans and Democrats. At the beginning of the story is a set of 1,944 challenges to King County voter registrations that Sotelo filed in late October, days before the November 8 election. At the time, Sotelo bragged that her unpaid interns, using digital cameras and internet searches, had done a better job of cleaning up the voter rolls than the King County Elections office. Almost immediately, however, it became clear that Sotelo's army of partisan watchdoggers had been more slapdash in creating their list than even the Republicans' worst caricature of the hapless King County Elections office. A considerable number of the voters Sotelo had challenged for registering illegally at P.O. boxes or storage units had perfectly legal addresses. Because of this, Sotelo ended up withdrawing 178, or about nine percent, of her challenges before the canvassing board could hear them. When this happened, furious Democrats saw it as proof that Sotelo had been intentionally careless with her challenges in an attempt to suppress votes in Democratic King County.
Republicans strenuously denied that charge, as well as the charge that they were trying to help Republican David Irons in his ultimately failed attempt to unseat King County Executive Ron Sims. (Any preelection accusations of incompetence by King County Elections, which Sims oversees, were likely to help Irons and hurt Sims.) Then, as the angry rhetoric flew back and forth between the parties, observers waited to see how many of the remaining Republican challenges actually held up in hearings before the canvassing board.
Now we know. Of the 1,944 voters whose registrations Sotelo initially challenged, only 199 decided to vote anyway. Of those 199 challenges, the canvassing board rejected 141 as lacking "clear and convincing" supporting evidence, allowing those votes to count—a rejection rate of about 70 percent.
How many legitimate voters just gave up and never voted because of the challenges? We'll never know, although Sims has an estimate. "The sad fact is that the vast majority of the voters—more than 1,000—challenged by Ms. Sotelo ended up not voting in this election," Sims said. "In that sense, Ms. Sotelo and other party officials involved in her effort can say, 'mission accomplished.'"
If one adds the Sotelo challenges rejected by the canvassing board to those she has already withdrawn, her error rate so far, out of the 1,944 original challenges, is about 16 percent. Sotelo wasn't at the Monday hearing to watch those rather negative results come in, but state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance quickly flipped the results around and pointed to the 58 challenges that were upheld, and the hundreds of challenged voters who changed their addresses before the election in response to Sotelo, calling them a vindication of her efforts.
With regard to those 58 voters, Vance said, "King County's error rate was 100 percent, because they didn't find any of those faulty registrations." As for the more than 1,000 challenges that still have to be examined, Vance said, "we are going to achieve exactly what we set out to achieve. King County is going to scour the list."
Vance described calls for a perjury investigation of Sotelo as "absurd" and defended her as "a good citizen, acting in good faith, trying to prevent illegal voting."
"Oh, I see," Susan Sheary, chair of the King County Democrats, responded sarcastically. "Sounds like good old Ronald Reagan doublespeak to me. If they would have just handed over that list to King County Elections Director Dean Logan when they first got it, and let the professionals do their jobs, none of this would be happening."