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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

GOP lawmaker tours Cyber Ninjas ‘audit,’ considers changes in Washington called unnecessary

A Republican legislator who recently toured the ongoing “forensic audit” of 2020 election ballots in Phoenix said Washington should consider some changes to improve the accuracy of its elections.

“Do I think our election system can be improved? Yes. By how much? I don’t know,” Rep. Robert Sutherland, of Granite Falls, said.

The state might consider a similar audit for one of its large counties, he said. It should also consider printing ballots on paper that’s marked with a substance that only shows up under ultraviolet light to prevent people from copying ballots and mailing them in.

But Secretary of State Kim Wyman, the state’s chief election officer, said Sutherland doesn’t seem to understand some of the safeguards already in place for Washington elections and disputed the description of what’s happening in Arizona.

Washington already conducts audits of its voting machines both before and after the election, and has other systems to check whether ballots are being cast by the voters who were sent the ballots, she said.

It doesn’t do a forensic audit, but what’s going on in Phoenix for ballots cast in Maricopa County isn’t a true forensic audit, said Wyman, who was Thurston County auditor before being elected secretary of state. A forensic audit is a special type of audit typically used to determine if missing money has been stolen and a crime committed, with a strict structure and specific standards.

There is no standard for a forensic audit of elections, she said, and Cyber Ninjas, the company conducting the work in Arizona, has never conducted an election audit before.

Any audit of election results in Washington would have to be fully open to the press and public, unlike the Arizona process, and would have to have transparent funding. Although the Arizona Legislature approved some money to start the Cyber Ninja’s operation, the company has since been raising money through donations in which sources of the money aren’t necessarily disclosed.

“All of their processes are opaque. We have Sunshine Laws that require government to be open,” Wyman said.

Sutherland said he went to Arizona “on my own dime” after being invited on a trip by the chairman of the state GOP’s Election Integrity Commission. He was accompanied by several other Republicans, including fellow state Rep. Jesse Young of Gig Harbor.

He agreed to go because he has received many calls by constituents concerned about election integrity and fears that illegal votes were canceling out their legitimate votes, Sutherland said.

He isn’t sure about allegations that the 2020 election was stolen and went to Phoenix with an open mind.

“If I felt it was just an absolute waste of time, I wouldn’t have gone,” he said, adding he’d been receiving calls questioning the results since the election and “the issues don’t seem to be going away.”

A biochemist who works in pharmaceutical research, Sutherland acknowledged there are things about the state’s election process he doesn’t know. But he did co-sponsor bills to make changes to the process, including requiring ballots to have paper with special watermarks and to shift the responsibility for auditing elections to private companies rather than county officials. Neither received a hearing in the 2021 legislative session.

Sutherland said his training as a scientist leads him to believe no system is perfect, so even if the election results are 99% accurate, that’s still a possibility of error on tens of thousands of ballots in a statewide election like last year’s in which more than 4 million ballots were cast. He also believes Cyber Ninjas have a good idea of putting a special mark on the ballot with a substance that only shows up under ultraviolet light, which would ensure that none is duplicated on a copy machine and only valid ballots are counted.

Wyman said that’s a misunderstanding of Washington’s all-mail voting system. While Sutherland and the other people in the group that went to Phoenix didn’t contact her for information about Washington elections before they left, she’s happy to talk with them now that they’ve returned.

The machines that count the ballots are tested in each county before and after the election, and they have to be 100% accurate in the numbers they record, she said.

Ballots are verified when they are received at the county elections office based on the voter’s signature on the envelope before it is opened, and only one ballot from each voter can be accepted. Ballots that are duplicated wouldn’t find their way into the tabulating system because the same person can’t vote multiple times, and someone trying to cast a ballot for other voters would have to match their signatures.

Although there can be human error, voter fraud is rare, but the most common types in recent elections have been people who register and vote in two different states because they have homes in both, and family members who cast a ballot for someone who died before the election.

In the case of the latter, however, it’s not voter fraud if the voter was alive when marking their ballot and signing their envelope, but dies before Election Day and a relative mails it in.

Like Sutherland, Wyman said she gets calls from Washington residents concerned about the accuracy of the state’s elections.

Such contacts often come in waves based on something that shows up on certain news networks or social media.

Sometimes they ask her to disprove a negative, she said, such as, “How do you know the ballots weren’t printed in China?”

Others are recurring themes about the accuracy or honesty of the system, which sometimes go back to the 2004 gubernatorial election. That year Republican Dino Rossi was narrowly in the lead in the final election count and in the first recount conducted by the voting machines, but Democrat Chris Gregoire edged him out by 129 votes in the final recount conducted by hand.

The state Republican Party challenged that final tally in court, claiming illegal ballots were counted. But during a two-week trial in Chelan County Superior Court, only four illegal ballots were produced, cast by felons who weren’t yet eligible to register, and all four said they had voted for Rossi.