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Whiff of Rossi-Gregoire ’04 in the air? Democrats lodge early protest over King County GOP’s collecting of ballots door to door

Post by Brad Shannon / The Olympian on Nov. 3, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
November 3, 2012 5:06 pm

The battle for governor is going down to the wire in Washington, and campaigns for both major parties are out knocking on doors to leave no ballot un-turned-in this weekend. In King County, home of the historic court fight in the 2004 governor’s race between Chris Gregoire and Dino Rossi, Republicans say they are taking a page out of Democrats’ playbook with an aggressive door-to-door effort. But in a move that is drawing criticism from state Democrats, the GOP is even driving to homes and picking up ballots to turn in on voters’ behalf.

It’s an unorthodox practice to grab ballots from voters directly, and Secretary of State Sam Reed said today his office discourages it. But Reed said it also is legal – somewhat like Democrats going to the doors of voters in the famously close 2004 election with affidavits to collect voter signatures on unsigned ballots they wanted to have counted in a race ultimately decided by 133 votes.

“We strongly discourage such activity, but it’s not illegal,” Reed said in an email reply to my query last night. He said King County elections officials and his office went to court in 2004 halt the affidavits collection “but Judge Lum ruled it’s protected political activity.”

State Democrats’ lawyer, Kevin Hamilton, sent Reed a letter of protest on Friday, asking him to intervene in the case and get his party’s King County leaders to stop. Hamilton was one of the lawyers who fought in court to preserve Gregoire’s 133-vote win in the disputed 2004 election as well as in 2009 over a Senate race in Minnesota.

Lori Sotelo, King County GOP chairwoman, defended the practice and said her party has 10 vans it is using today to get out into areas of the county where there are too few ballot drop boxes.

Sotelo said in a Friday evening interview this is just one part of a larger effort to help voters who have difficulty filling out ballots or mailing them in – and that paid campaign workers are taking some ballots and putting them into drop boxes for voters who want that.

The King County Elections office has apparently received complaints about the practice and is advising voters on its web site to instead mail in ballots or put them directly into drop boxes. But Sotelo said no one asked her party to stop the practice and that she has been in touch with county elections director Sherril Huff.

Sotelo noted that the county elections web site does not actually condemn the practice of picking up ballots and she claimed Democrats have done it before to deliver “truckloads” of ballots.

State Democrats deny that claim, saying it is not their practice. But Zach Smith, an Olympia-based party activist, said that when he worked on Denny Heck’s congressional campaign in 2010 they did have people go out to voters in rural areas of the county to pick up ballots – but that was only on Election Day. And I talked to reporter today who said the Heck campaign came by his house to get his ballot, but he chose in 2010 to take it to the post office himself.

This time around, Democrats say they are not doing it at all.

And gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee mentioned the GOP’s tactics during a campaign stop at a rally in Olympia this afternoon that also featured 10th district congressional candidate Denny Heck, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, and others.

“We have found out that the Republican Party has hired people to go out there and take possession into their orange colored vans of votes. And goodness knows what is going to happen to them after that,’’ Inslee said of the ballots.

“We believe ballots are a precious thing,” he added. “We Democrats need to get out there and encourage people to give them to the auditors and the state secretary where they belong and not the Republican Party.’’

Democratic Party spokesman Benton Strong said what Sotelo’s Republicans are doing creates a potential for voter fraud, and in his letter to Reed the party’s lawyer pointed to news reports of party activists collecting voter registrations in Virginia and destroying them.

“If we have a voter who needs a ride …we’ll do that. But we don’t collect ballots. We don’t do that,’’ Strong said. “We don’t go door to door taking people’s ballots. But what we do is run our field operations until 8 o’clock Tuesday night. We definitely have programs in place to make sure people can get their ballots to a post office or a drop box by 8 o‘clock.’’

Indeed Democrats are waging their own war to drive up voter participation. They have a massive get-out-the-vote operation that Strong says has already made millions of contacts with voters in the state, who now number 3.9 million according to the Office of the Secretary of State.

“We’re made more than 3 million voter contact calls. We’ve knocked on more than 1 million doors,” Strong said. “This is where elections are won.’’

Strong said the voter calls and door-to-door visits are done on behalf of the entire party slate of candidates – from president Obama to governor and local candidates. “This four-day period… this is all we do – make phone calls and knock on doors. This is where Democrats put the pedal to the floor,’’ he said.

Getting out the vote was also the theme of Democrats’ rallies in Tacoma and Olympia today where Inslee, Heck, and Murray were joined by many candidates for statewide and local office – including Kathleen Drew for secretary of state, Treasurer Jim McIntire, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, state Sen. Karen Fraser and county commissioner candidates Sandra Romero and Cathy Wolfe.

The recent Washington Poll said Inslee was leading Republican Rob McKenna by about 3.1 percent among likely voters, which was within the margin of error. That same poll, which found a third of subjects interviewed had voted, said Inslee was leading by a couple of percentage points among those who already voted.

Inslee told the rally he needed people to get out and work the last four days for him to get voters to turn in ballots. But asked if he was really worried, he said: “I feel positive about our race. I think we’ve delivered a forward thinking message for a forward thinking state. So I feel good about it. I don’t have qualms. I’ve just got confidence right now.’’

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