Before it blew up in her face last fall, Republican leader Lori D. Sotelo liked to brag that her "Voter Registration Integrity Project" was going to change how elections are conducted. It may still accomplish that aim, but not in the way she intended.

Sotelo, the Mercer Island woman who wrongly challenged hundreds of King County voter registrations just a few days before last November's elections, has inspired two election-reform bills in Olympia. The lead sponsors of these bills are two Democratic senators from the Seattle area who have taken seriously last year's promises by Republican officials that Sotelo's challenges were just a taste of what's to come this November.

A bill being pushed by Senator Karen Keiser (D-Kent) would fine individuals up to $250 for each bogus challenge. Had Senator Keiser's proposed law been in effect last November, Sotelo could have been fined more than $35,000 for her 141 faulty challenges, which were tossed out by the King County Canvassing Board after the election. Keiser's bill would also require challengers to pay the attorney fees of wrongly challenged voters.

Taking a less punitive tack, Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) has introduced a bill that would require most voter challenges to be filed at least 45 days before an election. (For newly registered voters, the bill would allow challenges to be filed up to 10 days before an election.) Her proposed challenge-free buffer zone around Election Day would prevent a repeat of last year, when Sotelo's last-minute mass challenges sowed confusion and led to Democratic accusations that Republicans were engaging in vote suppression. The Kohl-Welles bill would also make clear that those filing challenges have to perform more due diligence than Sotelo did. She largely relied on the word of interns and partisan volunteers before signing, "under penalty of perjury," nearly 2,000 challenges; under the Kohl-Welles bill, she'd need to do a lot more homework, and do it herself.

Joining in the call for reform is Republican Secretary of State Sam Reed, whose legislative liaison, Shane Hamlin, says the challenge process "was not intended to be another part of some political game." Reed is backing the Kohl-Welles bill, but not Keiser's proposed fines.

Diane Tebelius, the long-time Republican lawyer who defended Sotelo at last year's canvassing board hearings and now heads the state Republican Party, stuck with the Republican strategy of trying to shift attention away from faulty Republican challenges and toward faulty registrations in largely Democratic King County. She calls Senator Keiser's proposed fines "silly" and says that legislators' time would be better spent trying to clarify and enforce current voter-registration laws, rather than "trying to punish people who are trying to point out the problem."