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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Despite wave of voting reform bills fueled by fraud fears, Republicans in charge of Idaho and Washington elections say overhaul not needed

Miguel Canas-Pedraza fills out a ballot at the Kootenai County Elections office in Coeur d’Alene in October 2020.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – Amid a wave of restrictive voting proposals that GOP state lawmakers say are aimed at combating voter fraud, Idaho and Washington’s top election officials, both Republicans, say their states’ voting systems passed the test of the 2020 elections with flying colors.

“I think we did very well,” said Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney. “There were a lot of things that could have gone wrong that didn’t. We’re really very happy with the way things went, and that would be kudos to our counties and our county clerks who run those elections.”

Fears of fraud have spurred Republican legislators across the country to introduce more than 250 bills that aim to prevent illegal voting in 43 states, including Idaho and Washington, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan group that opposes the efforts.

In response, Democrats in Congress are pushing to pass sweeping legislation to make voting easier. The nationwide battle over voting laws escalated when Georgia’s Republican governor signed a bill March 25 that voting rights groups say will disenfranchise voters of color.

While election experts say illegal votes are cast in virtually every election, proponents of the bills have failed to prove instances of widespread or systemic fraud that could change an election’s outcome.

Denney said his office has investigated about 29 cases of voter fraud from 2020, or approximately 0.003% of the 878,527 ballots cast in Idaho’s general election, and he expects just three or four cases will be prosecuted.

Mail-in voting has been a common target of legislation across the country after former President Donald Trump spent months railing against the practice, claiming without evidence that it leads to widespread fraud. In Idaho, a bill introduced by state Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, would invalidate the votes for president on most absentee ballots.

On Feb. 25, the state House passed a bill from House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, that would make it a felony to drop off more than six absentee ballots or to deliver ballots for anyone other than a family member. The legislation was revised after the original version, which would have criminalized dropping off more than two ballots, drew opposition from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Moyle’s bill aims to crack down on what critics call “ballot harvesting,” which led to criminal charges against a North Carolina GOP operative in 2018. Denney said the practice has not been a problem in Idaho, but he is open to restricting it to assuage concerns among voters.

“Ballot harvesting is something that’s more a perception than a reality in Idaho,” he said, “but at the same time it’s a perception that’s very real in some people’s minds, so having something in the books is not a problem with us.”

Denney was similarly ambivalent about a bill from Rep. Brandon Mitchell, R-Moscow, that would require a voter to show ID with the voter’s current address. Idaho law allows a voter to sign an affidavit if they don’t have an ID when they go to vote.

“We would like to have a universal voter ID, but at the same time I don’t think it’s a big problem in Idaho,” Denney said.

Denney said Idaho’s election system is strong, pointing to a 2016 report by the Electoral Integrity Project at Harvard University and the University of Sydney that ranked his state second only to Vermont. The problem, he said, is not the state’s election laws but the public’s perception of them, a problem he attributed largely to social media.

“I think the system works well, but we need to continue to make sure that the people think that their vote is being counted and they have easy access to the polls,” he said. “I think our process is good, but perception is – I think they see things on national TV that make them question what we do in Idaho, as well.”

Unlike in GOP-dominated Idaho, voting restrictions have little chance of passing in Washington’s Democratic-led Legislature, but that hasn’t stopped Republicans – including state Sen. Mike Padden of Spokane Valley and state Rep. Brad Klippert of Kennewick – from introducing legislation that would end the universal mail-in voting system Washington has used since 2011.

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said none of the sponsors of those bills ever reached out to her office about the need for such a dramatic overhaul to the state’s election system.

“It’s disappointing,” Wyman said. “I would love to sit down with Rep. Klippert and address his concerns and what he sees as the fraud that occurred in 2020. I’m willing to have those conversations with them. But the way (the bills) were written, they were more about making a statement to constituents than they were trying to solve a problem.”

Wyman said the 2020 elections went smoothly in Washington and across the country despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic – and despite the repeated claims many of her fellow Republicans have made about fraudulent votes.

“This arguably was the best-run election that our country has ever seen,” she said, “and unfortunately there are those that don’t believe it because it’s easier to believe the misinformation and disinformation than it is to look at the actual mechanics of the election and how it was run.”

Wyman had to contend with fraud claims first-hand when GOP gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp sued her after he lost the race by more than half a million votes, claiming the election “was at all times fraudulent.” Facing the threat of legal sanctions for making meritless claims in court, Culp dropped the lawsuit in January.

Wyman said her office is still investigating cases of voter fraud in 2020, which she expects to number in the hundreds, a tiny fraction of the more than 4 million ballots cast in Washington last November.

While Republicans focus on illegal votes, Democrats are raising alarm about another problem: voter suppression. Their primary tool in Congress is the “For the People Act,” a sweeping package of election reforms that passed the Democratic-majority House on March 3, and pressure is building among Senate Democrats to bypass the filibuster rule to pass the bill with only Democratic votes.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, said Friday she was open to an “exemption” to the filibuster to pass the bill, which Democrats are framing as an increasingly urgent response to the wave of voting restrictions sweeping through GOP-controlled state legislatures.

The Democrats’ package would expand automatic and same-day voter registration along with mail-in and early voting. It also would require states to establish independent redistricting committees to redraw congressional districts and impose new campaign finance regulations, among other changes to the election system.

“Voting rights are fundamental to our democracy and giving everyone a voice,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said when she cosponsored the bill. “We need to protect those rights and make it easier for Americans to vote in our elections, not harder. We also need to reform our campaign finance laws so our government truly lives up to its founding ideals: for the people, by the people.”

Republicans like Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane have staunchly opposed the bill, which would mandate changes that have traditionally been left to the states.

“This legislation is a political power grab by Democrats attempting to nationalize elections and further concentrate power in Washington, D.C.,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “I have serious concerns about the way this bill limits free speech and forces states to adopt federally mandated election practices.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that political spending constitutes speech, and critics argue the campaign finance restrictions in the Democrats’ bill would infringe on freedom of speech.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said in a statement the Democrats’ bill would infringe on states’ constitutional rights to run their own elections. He also objected to a provision that would add a member to the bipartisan Federal Elections Commission, which is charged with enforcing campaign finance rules, a move Democrats say is needed to overcome partisan deadlocks that block investigations.

“Under our Constitution, states have jurisdiction over their own elections, not the federal government,” Crapo said. “This bill would mandate a one-size-fits-all process that removes that constitutional authority from states and hands it over to Washington bureaucrats.”

Both Denney and Wyman said they have concerns about their states’ ability to make the changes the For the People Act would require, although Wyman said Washington would be in relatively good shape because the state has already implemented many of the provisions the legislation calls for.

Wyman said she worries that by making election reform such a partisan issue, the parties are losing an opportunity to enact changes that could make voting both easier and more secure, like implementing same-day registration backed by a system that can catch instances of double voting.

“We need to listen to the concerns on both sides, because our country does have a history of actual voter fraud and we do have a history of actual voter suppression,” Wyman said. “But you can’t make things so secure that it impedes people’s ability to vote, and you can’t make things so open that you could increase the chance of fraudulent voting activity.”

“If you’re going to make it more secure, you’re going to have to make sure the accessibility doesn’t suffer. And until we can have that conversation, we’re going to just keep talking in terms that are really more political than anything.”