September 26, 2010 in City

Spin Control: Cooler head prevails in voter fraud probe

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Mention “voter fraud” and the politically righteous thunder how it won’t be tolerated. How nothing is more important than protecting the ballot. How only the lowest of the low – usually connected with the opposing party – would stoop to such a thing.

So when elections officials fingered a Stevens County man this spring for voting twice in 2008, the system swung into action. A sheriff’s detective interviewed Alan Christensen about the fact that his signature appeared to be on documents for two ballots, one in Washington and one in Oregon.

Christensen didn’t remember voting twice. But unfortunately for the recent Marine Corps retiree who left the service in 2008 after his second tour in Iraq, he couldn’t definitively say he didn’t.

He was charged with “making a false declaration as a voter,” a class C felony.

Christensen’s story isn’t a story of Chicago-style ballot box stuffing, but an example of how efforts to make it easier to register and vote can contribute to confusion and possibly bad balloting.

Christensen and his family lived near Suncrest while he was attached to the Marine Reserve Center in northwest Spokane for several years. But like many active-duty military personnel who move around frequently, he kept his driver’s license and voter registration elsewhere. When he retired and decided to stay in Suncrest, he went to get a Washington driver’s license on Sept. 30, 2008. The helpful person behind the counter asked if he also wanted to register to vote.

He remembers saying yes, answering several questions and signing up to vote.

He assumed – logically but incorrectly – that doing so would immediately cancel his registration in Oregon. But Oregon sent ballots to out-of-state voters on Oct. 8, so it’s unlikely the paperwork could have been processed before he was sent that ballot.

Later that month, Stevens County sent Christensen a Washington ballot. He remembers voting once – he can’t remember on the Washington or Oregon ballot – but admits he could have marked and mailed both ballots. Christensen has some post-traumatic stress symptoms from his Iraq service, receives a partial disability for it, and explains “my memory is shot to pieces on certain things.”

Early this year, when Washington and Oregon were checking the books for people who voted twice, his name came up. Information was sent to the Stevens County auditor, who referred it to the Sheriff’s Office, who sent a detective to interview Christensen. He told the detective he couldn’t remember if he voted twice, and the Sheriff’s Office had the signatures on the ballot statement checked. They matched; he was charged.

When he received a summons, he “freaked out” that he was being charged with a felony, but when he attended his arraignment in July, he was assigned a public defender who put him at ease that this wasn’t something to get too worried about.

For people who deal regularly with the flotsam and jetsam of the criminal courts – homicides, rapes, assaults, robberies – it might not be. But early this month, Christensen was back in a worrying mode when his public defender suggested he take an Alford plea, not admitting guilt but acknowledging there’s enough evidence to convict him. He’d have a felony record and lose his veterans benefits. He started calling around for a second legal opinion, but private attorneys wanted at least $7,000 to take the case.

For a guy holding a temporary job with the Forest Service, it may as well have been $700,000.

It’s a shame that none of the legal eagles was willing to discuss for free the concept of criminal intent. State Elections Director Nick Handy said proving criminal intent is a key part of any voter fraud conviction because there are many instances where voters just make mistakes.

For example, someone who lives in the suburbs and works in Spokane might register in the city to vote against taxes that affect his business. Makes a certain kind of logic, but it’s illegal. Or a husband may mark a ballot the way he’s sure his recently deceased wife would have wanted, sign her name and mail it in. Touching, but against the law.

These are what most allegations of voter fraud involve. Recall that in 2005, when Republicans had the greatest incentive ever to find evidence of malicious ballot-stuffing in the Rossi v. Gregoire election challenge, they produced a paltry few.

Things looked bad for Christensen until his 17-year-old son Chris wrote a letter to the Outpost, the local weekly paper, on the unfairness of the situation. A former law enforcement officer who read it called Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen.

Rasmussen, who hadn’t been deeply involved in decisions on the case, talked to Christensen, looked at the file and announced he was dropping the charges with prejudice, which means they can’t be refiled.

“I don’t think he had any intention to violate the law. I think it was a mistake,” Rasmussen said.

Like most parts of the criminal justice system, Rasmussen’s office has a full plate and “resources are strained.” But that’s no excuse for treating a veteran this way, he added.

“The dismissal was the result of our recognition of the stresses that affect servicemen and women as a result of their service to their country and the complications they encounter when changing residences and medical providers,” he said, adding he wished Stevens County had a “veterans court” like the one in Spokane.

Then he did a classy thing: He apologized. “I’m sorry we didn’t catch it sooner.”

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items, reader comments and videos at www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.


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