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Feds eyeing ‘un-American’ challenges

Some people scoffed at a Soap Lake man’s attempts to challenge the voting rights of hundreds of Washington residents based on the fact that their names just don’t sound very American to him. A few people laughed, some like-minded folks who spend their time writing for an Internet audience applauded and some others got angry.

But the federal government is taking seriously Martin Ringhofer’s demands that more than a dozen counties haul in some of their voters and make them prove their red-white-and-blue bona fides.

As with most things the feds take seriously, it’s not in a good way, at least for Ringhofer and the group he runs out of his post office box, Washington State Americans for Legal Immigration.

The idea that a voter’s registration can be challenged based on Ringhofer’s idea of an American-sounding name is likely against federal voting laws, attorneys from the U.S. Justice Department told state officials last week.

” ‘Concerned’ was the word they used,” said assistant state attorney general Jeff Even, who caught the call from the attorneys who enforce the state’s voting rights laws. “It might be a stronger word at a later date.”

Like if one of the counties were actually to start holding hearings on such challenges to voters. Which, according to all indications, they are not.

If they did, the feds might look askance because the Voting Rights Act prohibits using any qualification that results in denying someone the right to vote based on race. Picking out surnames that sound Hispanic or Asian (or Italian, Greek, Russian or Middle Eastern in some Spokane County cases) would not cut it under the law.

That’s what Ringhofer says he did. He obtained a list of everyone in the state who registered to vote when getting or renewing a driver’s license and picked through it for “voters whose first, middle and last name have no basis in the English language.” He then attached the list of un-American names in a particular to an omnibus challenge, and sent them off to more than a dozen counties.

All the counties rejected those challenges as not following the proper form. Get back to us when you have a separate challenge for each name, they said.

As a result of the call from the feds, and inquiries from the counties wondering what to do about Ringhofer’s challenges, the Secretary of State’s elections division e-mailed auditors a Voter Challenge form last week. It contains a box to check for the most common challenges, like not living at one’s stated address, not being at least 18, not being a Washington resident and, of course, not being an American citizen.

It also has a space where the challenger writes down what evidence he or she has to prove the voter isn’t legal.

Ringhofer could fill out one form for each of the voters he wants to challenge, Katie Blinn of the elections division said. He’ll have to explain why each individual should be removed from the rolls as a non-citizen.

What Ringhofer puts on the forms is up to him, Blinn said, but he’ll have to make what elections officials can consider a “prima facie” case that each one isn’t a citizen. Based on the call from the feds, they’re going to be reluctant “to proceed with some hearing based on nothing more than the name sounding un-American,” she said.

Some GOP critics

Ringhofer’s list was denounced by a wide array of people, including the state Republican Party, which is trying to make gains among Hispanic voters. George Bush did well in the state’s most Hispanic congressional district, Central Washington’s 4th, and the party and the Republican National Hispanic Assembly would like to keep it that way.

Riding with the King

In other election misadventures, King County is again having problems with its ballots. Or maybe still.

The King County elections office is still finding unopened, uncounted mail-in ballots from the November election. Now they’re getting complaints from absentee voters who received envelopes with NO ballots in them, for a special April 26 election.

Which raises an interesting question: Are they getting better, or worse?

Power couple

In non-election news, word comes from Washington, D.C., that an expanding lobbyist firm just hired a Nethercutt. No, this isn’t old news. Different firm, different Nethercutt.

Mary Beth Nethercutt was hired last week by Tews Cadenas, which bills itself as a global advocacy firm. She’s the former director of legislative affairs for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a former staff attorney on Capitol Hill.

And, of course, the wife of former Rep. George Nethercutt, who landed a lobbying job with another firm a few months ago.