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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington House approves bill to prevent disclosure of voter envelopes and signatures

Margie Dennis, left, and elections supervisor Kris Forgey-Haynie sort through ballots at the Spokane County Elections Office in November.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Albert James The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – A bill that would exempt voter information on ballot return envelopes, ballot declarations and signature correction forms from public disclosure passed 69-26 out of the state House of Representatives on Wednesday afternoon.

Currently, images of election ballot return envelopes can be requested by members of the public under public records laws. Those images contain voter signatures, phone numbers and emails.

This bill, however, would protect that personal information from being disclosed.

Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, a bill sponsor, said people expect their signatures to be exempted from public disclosure.

“We have other examples in state government where signatures … are restricted from the Public Records Act,” Volz said during the floor debate.

Requests for envelopes in the past have only concerned individual envelopes, Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said, but this year counties received requests for entire files of all their collected return envelopes. Dalton said she wasn’t sure why so many large requests came in this year, and she can’t ask requesters why they want records.

“That’s when it became apparent that there was additional protection that really needed to be formalized,” Dalton told The Spokesman-Review in January.

Volz said constituents he has spoken with were surprised envelope information was able to be released.

Anyone can file a request for a single government document containing a signature, like a recorded deed. The difference with return envelopes, Dalton said, is that a person could get thousands of signatures with just one request.

“Because we image the outside of the envelopes, you’re getting all of those signatures in one file,” Dalton said. “So, you’re getting them in bulk at one time.”

All those who voted against the bill were Republicans, including Rep. Vicki Kraft, of Vancouver. She said exempting ballots from public records requests could hinder election audit efforts in the future.

Volz said election observers and auditors inspecting voter signatures will not be affected by the bill.

“They will have access to the original envelopes to check the signatures and do whatever they’re allowed to do as observers through an audit process,” Volz said.

Dalton said exempting sensitive information from public disclosure is just common sense.

“If it’s protected in your voter registration record, it only makes sense that it should also be protected on your ballot envelope that comes back to us,” Dalton said.

The bill will be sent to the Senate for consideration in committee.