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Spin Control: Election skeptics demanding records, recounts

Republican Bob McCaslin, seated at right, who lost the Spokane County auditor’s race to Democratic incumbent Vicky Dalton, watches during a hand recount of votes for the Spokane County auditor’s race on Wednesday at the Spokane Elections Office in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

The start of the partial recount in the Spokane County auditor’s race was delayed briefly last week by some observers using the opportunity to demand answers about pending public records requests, something at best only tangentially related to the matter of reviewing results from five of the county’s 439 precincts.

The number of requests for records from the county elections office has skyrocketed in recent years, something not unique to Spokane, partly from people unhappy with or suspicious of the results of various races and possibly seeking a different outcome.

In 2019, there were five public records requests related to elections, County Auditor Vicky Dalton said. There were four in 2020, 11 in 2021, and more than 70 so far in 2022.

Not all the requests involve an election that year, so some in 2022 are for the 2020 or 2021 elections. One request was for copies of all the outer ballot envelopes from the 2020 general election which show the voter signatures. It won’t be filled because in March, the Legislature amended the state’s Public Records Act to exempt personal information on ballot envelopes like signatures, phone numbers and email addresses.

Other requests that won’t be fulfilled are those asking for reports generated by the Dominion and Hart voting machines. The county doesn’t use either of those systems, so it doesn’t have those reports.

As someone who has used the Public Records Act a fair amount, I’m generally in favor of government agencies applying it liberally and swiftly. But I’ve always found that when asking for a specific kind of record, it’s a good idea to know enough about the agency to know if such a record even exists.

Math just didn’t work

It’s unclear what last week’s recount of five precincts in the county auditor race was designed to accomplish, unless it was to shore up faith in the election system.

Republican challenger Bob McCaslin requested, and ultimately paid for, a hand recount of five precincts in the Eagle Ridge area above U.S. Highway 195.

The overall race was close, with the two candidates separated by 1,183 votes. That meant incumbent Democrat Vicky Dalton had 50.24% of the vote to McCaslin’s 49.70%, just .04, or 4 one-hundredths, of a percentage point shy of a mandatory machine recount of the race. If he picked up 59 votes and she lost 59 votes – or any other equation that shifted 118 votes in his favor – they would then be separated by .5%.

McCaslin has refused to comment for stories on the recount, but some people speculated that he was trying to switch enough votes in those five precincts to reach that threshold and trigger a full recount.

There are two problems with such a plan. First, Dalton won all of the five precincts selected by a total of 177 votes, so almost half of them would have to have been counted wrong, and in a way that favored McCaslin, to reach the threshold. The chances of him picking up that many votes in those precincts was unlikely, considering they trend Democratic. The two Republicans at the top of the ticket, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley, only won two of the five, and then only by a few votes.

A bigger problem would have been that the Secretary of State’s elections division believes the Washington statute on partial recounts would only mandate a full automatic recount if the changed votes in the those five precincts would have changed the result of the election. That is, if it was enough votes to put McCaslin ahead, at least temporarily.

“So far, the question appears to be a hypothetical one,” wrote Derrick Nunnally, deputy director of external affairs for the Secretary of State’s office, in a response to an email query. “To the best of our knowledge, the situation you described has not come up.”

It might be possible to find a lawyer to challenge that interpretation in court.

But if the state elections division is correct – and they are the expert of Washington elections law – McCaslin would have needed a huge shift in those five precincts to be ahead of Dalton. Only at that point would all the precincts have been recounted.

He would have needed to pick up at least the full 1,183 votes, which would have been 90% of Dalton’s total in those five precincts, to trigger a full recount which could have given him the final victory or put Dalton back on top, depending on the final tally.

As it was, this is all hypothetical because the hand recount changed exactly zero votes. As in none. Nil. Zilch.

Which should give election doubters at least a modicum of confidence that local results are pretty darn accurate. But I’m not counting on it.

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