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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: What really counts as voter fraud, anyway? You might be surprised

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 14, 2020

Sue Lani Madsen  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Sue Lani Madsen (JESSE TINSLEY)

It wasn’t fraudulent voting, she had decided.

He was legitimately registered to vote. He’d proudly voted in every election for more than 50 years. But Alzheimer’s disease had slowly eroded his ability to follow current affairs. He would have been lost without his faithful wife, who organized life for both of them (including keeping his voting record intact, even when he could no longer fill out his own ballot).

She usually marked both ballots the same. When she couldn’t make up her mind, she marked one ballot for and the other against or split the ballots between two candidates. This time, she carefully followed the directions for the security envelope and the outer envelope, handed it to him to sign the declaration, and took both ballots to a drop box.

It worked until Alzheimer’s affected his handwriting. He was notified by his county elections office that his ballot was rejected for a mismatched signature. He could have “cured” his ballot by signing a new voter registration card, but she decided it was time he stopped voting.

Had she been committing fraud? No, he was still signing his own ballot. It is permissible for someone with a disability to receive help marking the ballot legibly, but “helping” by signing for someone too incapacitated to make their own mark would have been forgery. In the eyes of the law, she stopped short of fraud.

Death records are regularly cross-referenced with voter rolls, but the time lag may mean a ballot arrives for one last election. Destroy it. According to Secretary of State Kim Wyman, this kind of fraud is most commonly committed by a well-meaning relative, not part of a conspiracy combing graveyards to throw an election. But it doesn’t matter what dear departed Great Aunt Edith’s dying wish was; voting her ballot is fraud. And committing fraud can bring the sheriff to your door.

Wyman recalled one incident of multiple fraud when she was an elections official for Thurston County. Ballots from three sons and a father triggered suspicion during initial processing. She sent a deputy to the house for a chat, and a sheepish mom admitted she’d mailed in their ballots while they were away on an extended hunting trip. She didn’t realize county elections offices check signatures. “We didn’t prosecute her, but it gave her a good scare,” Wyman said.

Voter fraud is extremely rare in Washington, although it’s not zero. In 2016, there were 74 cases referred for investigation out of over 3.36 million ballots cast. Wyman said there were 142 cases in 2018 of potential voting on behalf of a dead person or double voting in the general election. Local law enforcement and county prosecutors are still in the midst of their initial investigation. Wyman will turn the cases over to the FBI if the counties take no action.

“It was a federal election and the FBI takes a keen interest in voter fraud,” she said.

Part of the decision to prosecute is intent. Was the person trying to commit voter fraud, or just careless? Wyman said some of these 142 cases may be people who have two homes or recently moved, received two ballots, and just don’t think anyone cares. “Until law enforcement shows up at their door and they suddenly care. People think we don’t check. We do.”

Wyman also warned against ballot harvesting.

Wyman highly recommends not giving your ballot to any individual or group offering to turn in ballots. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your union, your church or your friend from the book club.

Last session, Wyman requested legislation that would have provided guidelines to groups wanting to collect ballots and required keeping records and providing receipts for accountability. She noted ruefully some legislative committee members thought it was an attempt to suppress the vote.

“Treat your ballot like money,” Wyman said. “Would you hand a $100 bill to a stranger who came to the door and said they’d deposit it in the bank for you?”

Every voter is a first responder in suppressing voter fraud. If you do suspect fraud, if someone boasts of having beat the system, contact your local county elections office. They take voter fraud seriously.

So should every one of us.

Sue Lani Madsen can be reached at

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