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Eye On Olympia

State election officials: A roll is hard to scrub…

Last week, Seattle's KIRO TV did some data cross matching -- the state voters rolls with a database of criminal convictions -- and concluded that election officials are wrongly mailing ballots to felons -- probably thousands of them.

If so, that's a potentially big problem. Unless a person has had his or her right to vote restored by a judge or the governor, it's illegal in Washington for a convicted felon to vote. Even if the crime took place decades ago.

Writing on the Evergreen Freedom Foundation's blog recently, Trent England called for people to urge the Secretary of State's office to do a better job culling out ineligible felon voters.

"...Every wrongful vote disenfranchises a legal voter who will never even know that his or her vote was illegally canceled out. Even worse, it corrodes the faith of citizens in our democratic process."

he wrote.

"Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed offers a two-part answer: take the easy road and look the other way. That’s a path to an Election Day disaster. Though he has managed some election improvements, on these issues Reed has chosen to ignore and thus accept illegal voter registrations from felons and minors now their ballots are in the mail."

But what seems like an easy crossmatch is extraordinarily difficult, says Dave Ammons, spokesman for Secretary of State Sam Reed. For decades, there was no master list of which felons had gotten their voting rights restored.

(Some states have much less restrictive rules, and Washington lawmakers have repeatedly floated the idea of changing the law so that only people actually in prison are banned from casting a ballot.)

In the wake of 2004's famously-close governor's race, Secretary of State Sam Reed and his staff have scrubbed a total of 160,000 invalid registrations from the voter rolls. Among them: voters who'd died, people who'd moved and forgot to cancel their old registration, and felons whose rights hadn't been restored. The state has been able to crossmatch felony convictions since 2006 with voter rolls using state prison data, Ammons says. That data has allowed election officials to remove more than 11,000 felons from voter lists, he said.

But to go back further to check for felon voting, Ammons says, would likely require a painstaking search through millions of old files in every courthouse across the state. (Everyone who registers signs an oath saying that they're eligible to vote, and without a master list prior to 2006, someone would have to pull each person's court file to prove otherwise.)

"We're doing the best we can with the resources and legal constraints we have," Ammons said. "We have limited ability to reach back" in time.

Simply yanking the registration of everyone ever convicted of a felony, he said, would almost certainly mean disenfranchising some people who can, in fact, vote.

State elections director Nicky Handy says that the KIRO database stretches back to the 1800s and includes thousands of people convicted only of misdemeanors -- which doesn't affect one's right to vote.

"We won't use bad methodology to purge people from their civil rights," Ammons said. "Voting rights are a precious thing and you don't just willy-nilly remove them."

Short takes and breaking news from the Washington Legislature and the state capital.