Pledge of election reform may not be fulfilled
OLYMPIA – In January, lawmakers and state officials promised to restore public confidence in the state’s election system after the drawn-out governor’s race melted down into a contested result still being challenged in the courts.
Now, in the final weeks of the Legislature’s session, whether the House and Senate can agree on what needs to be done is anyone’s guess.
“There’s no doubt about it, this will be an emotionally charged issue,” said Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, the architect of the Senate plan. “It was in the very beginning, it will be in the end.”
More than two dozen bills were introduced after Gov. Christine Gregoire was elected by 129 votes in a hand recount. Problems alleged by her Republican opponent Dino Rossi included votes cast by felons and the deceased, and dozens of uncounted ballots found in King County months later.
Rossi – who led after the first two tallies – is challenging the outcome in a Chelan County court and a May 23 trial date has been set. Gregoire, who maintains her win was legitimate, acknowledged the hard feelings and promised to make election reform one of her top issues.
Her election reform task force, led by Republican Secretary of State Sam Reed, proposed several changes, many of which were included in a six-bill package passed by the Senate in February. Last month the House passed three bills, including one that moves the primary from September to August, an idea minority Republicans in the Senate had blocked in a protest vote.
Among the ideas in the Senate’s package: allowing voter records to be randomly investigated, requiring election officials to check the citizenship of each new applicant, and requiring statewide standards for handling ballots and regular audits of county election departments.
While most of the acrimony over what constitutes true election reform has been between Democrats and Republicans, a slight rift between House and Senate Democrats could keep a unified package from reaching Gregoire’s desk.
The first sticking point was mail-in voting. The Senate passed a bill making it easier for counties to switch to all mail-in voting. The House passed a bill mandating the switch statewide by 2008. In committee, the Senate changed the House bill to make it voluntary; the House returned the favor by amending the Senate’s bill to make it mandatory – with a minor concession of extending the deadline to 2012.
Last week, the House State Government, Operations & Accountability Committee made some significant changes to two of the main bills passed out of the Senate in February.
The House committee removed identification requirements at the polls, something Gregoire and Reed supported and the original Senate bill required. They also removed the citizenship verification for new registered voters, something even the Secretary of State’s office acknowledged would be difficult to do.
House Republicans were visibly upset during the committee hearing, and two stormed out before the vote.
Negotiations are going on behind the scenes but if no agreement is found, the bills could die before they ever reach Gregoire’s desk. The regular session ends April 24.
“I’d hate to see election reform end up in that situation,” Reed said. “A lot of times things can go sideways when the House and Senate can’t agree.”
Kastama said he was confident he would be able to work with House members to come to a compromise.
“I think we’re going to have some late-night sessions hammering out the details,” he said. “At this point I’m not concerned we’re so far apart that we can’t come together.”
House elections chair Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, agreed.
“I think we tried to respond to the public, we changed a lot of things and I’m pretty sure that we’ll get these bills out,” she said. “But I’m not willing to do things that just aren’t logical and aren’t fair. I’m not going to do it just because people think we should.”
Rep. Lynn Schindler, R-Spokane Valley, one of the Republicans who walked out of the House committee, said she held out little hope that her concerns would be addressed.
“This started out as a bipartisan effort,” she said. “It was something that the public wanted and I don’t think we delivered, and that’s really disappointing to me.”
Reed said that while he wasn’t happy with some of the House changes, including the removal of the ID requirement, he feels that legislators are making a strong effort to create reform.
He said several of the changes taken in the bills are a direct response to what happened in the last election, including changing the look of the provisional ballots so that they aren’t counted with regular ballots and regular reviews of voter polls to look for errors.
“Overall, I feel like the Legislature is stepping up to this issue and certainly the governor has,” he said.
Lance LeLoup, a political scientist at Washington State University, said the public likely isn’t paying much attention to the political back-and-forth.
“Every month that goes by, it’s lower and lower on the radar screen,” he said. “It will bounce back up if there’s any court decision. I think that’s why the Legislature had to move so quick on it, because no one’s really thinking about it anymore.”
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