Odessa Mayor Denny McDaniel remains a legally registered voter in his city even though he lived in Airway Heights during most of his current term.
The Lincoln County election canvassing board has ruled that challengers, including three of five town council members, failed to prove McDaniel wasn’t living in the city in time to vote in this month’s general election.
The challengers hoped to disqualify McDaniel from holding office on grounds that he doesn’t live in Odessa. Residency for the election was the only issue before the canvassing board, though. A separate court ruling would be required to force the mayor from office.
Town Council members adopted the voter registration challenge as an inexpensive way to build their case. They had planned to spend several thousand dollars on a court challenge, but backed down when residents complained.
Town Councilman Chip Hunt figures the backlash cost him his council seat. He was eliminated in a three-way primary in September.
McDaniel said he would resign if the canvassing board - composed of Auditor Shelly Johnston, Prosecutor Ron Shepherd and County Commissioner Ted Hopkins - ruled against him. But he now intends to serve the remaining two years of his term.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a dead issue,” McDaniel said. “I’m ready to bury this horse. I guess, if somebody wants to ride it on further, they can do it.”
One of the challengers, Town Councilman Tony Williams, said he and the other challengers were still reviewing the canvassing board’s decision and hadn’t decided how to respond, but “I don’t think it’s over.”
“We’re looking at our options and trying to understand where their reasoning is coming from,” Williams said. “They’ve obviously sidestepped the issue and used some little infinitesimal technicalities to get around making a decision.”
The canvassing board said challengers provided “sufficient information” that McDaniel failed to transfer his registration from one Odessa address to another in the course of several moves. He is now renting a house cater-cornered from where he is registered.
However, the board said that issue was “not properly brought before the canvassing board nor was proper notice provided to the voter.”
Canvassing board members could not be reached for comment, but an assistant state elections director said the board decision appears sound. Challengers said McDaniel lives in Spokane County, not cater-cornered from where he is registered.
“It looks like the Lincoln County canvassing board took a very deliberative approach to this, and they came out with the right result,” said David Elliott, of the Washington secretary of state’s office.
He said state law on voter registration “is very much geared toward your intent: Where do you say you live? A perfect example is a college student who goes away to college and comes home to mom and dad’s to vote.”
The “classic” case, he said, was a 1990 challenge intended to show that Alan Bluechel, then a state senator from Kirkland, didn’t live in his district. Opponents challenged Bluechel’s wife’s registration to discredit his claim that they lived in a $50,000 condominium instead of their $1.2 million house outside his district.
Despite compelling testimony against the Bluechels from neighbors and a police investigator, the challengers lost.
Lincoln County officials were similarly not persuaded by testimony that McDaniel and his wife were seldom seen at the modest Odessa home they rented in late September. Instead, they accepted McDaniel’s argument that he has a $157,000 house at Airway Heights for business and investment purposes.
During the hearing, McDaniel admitted he lived exclusively at the Airway Heights house from May 1996 to July 1997. His critics could use that as ammunition in a lawsuit to remove him from office, but McDaniel thinks he is no longer vulnerable.
“They could have done something about it when I was out of compliance, but I’m not out of compliance now,” he said.