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Friday, September 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: Washington group checks candidate backgrounds for voters

Dave Sullivan places his ballot in a ballot box outside of the downtown Spokane Library on Monday, Nov. 7, 2016. Voters have used their ballots to call for a repeal of taxes passed earlier this year, but the legislature is not legally bound to do so. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Dave Sullivan places his ballot in a ballot box outside of the downtown Spokane Library on Monday, Nov. 7, 2016. Voters have used their ballots to call for a repeal of taxes passed earlier this year, but the legislature is not legally bound to do so. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

If you haven’t voted yet – and I don’t have to be Carnac the Magnificent to know most of you haven’t – it might be because you don’t know enough about those unfamiliar names on the primary ballot.

An off-year election like Tuesday’s primary is the kind that frequently draws new blood to the body politic. If Congress and the White House campaigns represent the Major Leagues of politics, city council and school board primaries might be like the Spokane Indians.

Most of these candidates will never make an appearance in the political equivalent of Safeco Field, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth checking out now.

That can be more difficult than last year, when newspapers, airwaves and social media were overflowing with election coverage. But there is a website that will give Spokane-area voters some useful background information on candidates for municipal office.

CandidateVerification.org is a nonprofit with a bipartisan board, many of them veterans of different political battles. It asks candidates to submit to the kind of background checks that any employer might do on a potential employee – a multi-state criminal check going back 10 years, a nationwide check of sex offender registries, plus county and federal civil records. It also verifies any education and employment history a candidate lists on a resume.

When the checks come back, the candidate is asked to give permission for the group to post the results online.

Lots of organizations ask candidates to supply information or fill out questionnaires, and the response is often spotty. Republican candidates don’t respond to left-leaning groups and Democrats ignore right-leaning ones. And some candidates get so many questionnaires they refuse to do any.

By itself, CandidateVerification has no clout, Executive Director David Doud said. But a diverse array of groups rely on its background checks enough that candidates seeking support are either required or encouraged to sign up.

“It’s the pressure of our partners that really drives the process,” Doud said.

That includes groups as different as the Spokane Home Builders and Spokane Realtors, faith-based We Believe We Vote, and Amplify, the new name for Progressive Majority of Washington.

Arthur Whitten, of the Home Builders, said the group requires a background check before it will endorse a candidate, and finds them especially helpful this year.

“There are so many of these first-time candidates,” he said. “It’s like endorsement insurance for our members.”

Penny Lancaster, of We Believe We Vote, said the organization doesn’t require it, but does recommend candidates get the background check. Those who do get “extra credit” in its rundown of where they stand on key issues. “We appreciate what they are doing,” she said.

E.J. Juarez, of Amplify, said they encourage candidates, especially new ones, to get the background checks so “they know what’s out there.” The checks can reveal small mistakes in their resume, like a date that’s off for an education certificate or job they held. It can also let a candidate know that information about a bankruptcy or that they dropped out of college could come up in a campaign.

It’s not a game of “gotcha,” Juarez said. “It’s about helping people put their best foot forward and be honest with voters.”

CandidateVerification has been concentrating on Spokane races lately, so its 2017 database currently has many of the primary candidates for local municipal offices as well as a smattering of other Eastern Washington candidates. They have to draw the line there, Doud said, because at $100 to $200 per background check, they don’t have the money for school board or fire commissioner candidates. All their money comes from donations.

Doud hopes to grow the database in the period between the primary and the November general election.

Other help for voters

The Spokesman-Review has compiled all of its coverage of the primary races in its Election Center. Go to www.spokesman.com and click on Election 2017 in the box just a little way down from the top of the page.

Spokane County Elections also has an online voter guide for primary candidates.

Low numbers

How did I know that most people reading this column haven’t cast their primary ballot?

Well, it might’ve been an educated guess based on the fact primary elections in off years always have more people who don’t vote than people who do. I could have gone with that under the “not my first rodeo” rule of political science.

But being a responsible journalist, I checked with the Spokane County Elections Office on Friday afternoon. It was reporting less than 14 percent of the ballots it sent out have come back.

Blaming the low numbers on a lack of information may be overly charitable. But it sounds better than saying voters are too lazy to put down their chilled beverage, get out of the hammock and mark the ballot.

Ballots must either be postmarked or deposited in a drop box by 8 p.m. Tuesday.

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