Washington election officials couldn’t immediately verify that the suspect in last week’s deadly mall shooting is a U.S. citizen, although he has voted in three elections since 2014.
That problem could be avoided if the state meets federal requirements for driver’s licenses and state identification cards, Secretary of State Kim Wyman said Friday at a news conference in Spokane.
Election officials “are not permitted to require proof of citizenship, and so there is no way to verify” a person’s eligibility to vote, Wyman said. “I find this completely unacceptable. People are understandably frustrated about the situation, and we’re frustrated as well.”
Wyman, a Republican elected in 2012, said voter registration in Washington relies on an “honor system.” Residents sign ballot envelopes pledging they are citizens, but they don’t have to provide any documentation as proof.
She said her office needs regular access to the federal government’s database of U.S. citizens. And to achieve that, she said, the Legislature must bring Washington into compliance with REAL ID, a set of federal security standards enacted in 2005.
But her opponent in the November election, Democrat Tina Podlodowski, accused Wyman of attempting to “capitalize” on the Aug. 23 shooting at the Cascade Mall in Burlington, Washington, which left five people dead.
“This is just a Republican trick to bring up the issue of voter fraud again,” Podlodowski said, disputing a common GOP claim that voter fraud is rampant in the United States. “I’m appalled at how low Kim Wyman is willing to stoop to get re-elected off the backs of immigrants.”
Arcan Cetin, 20, of Oak Harbor, Washington, is charged with five counts of premeditated murder in connection with the mall shooting. Seattle-area TV and radio stations questioned his eligibility to vote after authorities revealed he emigrated from Turkey as a young child.
KING 5 last week quoted an unnamed federal official as saying Cetin is a legal resident but not a citizen. On Thursday, however, the station quoted another unnamed official as saying he is a citizen.
Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said federal law prohibits the agency from publicly confirming or denying a person’s citizenship.
Washington is one of three states that haven’t adopted REAL ID standards, which Congress developed to improve national security after 9/11. The state was granted several extensions in the deadline to comply.
Wyman said REAL ID could be used to prevent voter fraud because it requires people to show proof of citizenship when applying for some IDs. That documentation then would be stored in a federal database, which states can use to check voter registrations.
Some state legislators say that would discourage undocumented residents from obtaining licenses, which would make it impossible for them to get liability insurance for their vehicles. Others say it’s an invasion of privacy for the federal government to keep a list of citizens.
“You hear from Democrats that they don’t want to ask the citizenship question, that they don’t want to chill registrations,” said David Ammons, a spokesman for Wyman’s office. “And then Republicans, some don’t like the idea of a national database, for philosophical reasons.”
If Washington doesn’t comply with REAL ID during the next legislative session, residents will need more than a state-issued driver’s license to board commercial flights starting Jan. 22, 2018. Fairchild Air Force Base has stopped allowing visitors with standard or enhanced driver’s licenses issued by the state.
Podlodowski said it’s up to legislators – not Wyman – to meet the federal requirements.
“Here’s my question,” she said. “Is there voter fraud in Washington? And if there is, why hasn’t Kim Wyman done anything about it until now?”
Numerous studies, court rulings and government investigations have concluded that voter fraud is exceedingly rare. One recent analysis, reported by NBC News, found just 10 cases of voter impersonation in all 50 states between 2000 and 2012, a period which saw 146 million voter registrations.
“I’m not sure it’s a big problem,” said Ammons, Wyman’s spokesman. “But still, our biggest job is to vet people with confidence.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.