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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: In the world of ‘election integrity,’ no integrity’s required

UPDATED: Tue., June 7, 2022

An election ballot is placed in ballot box outside of the Spokane Public Library on Nov. 7, 2016, in downtown Spokane. With filing week over, the candidate field for the August primary is set.   (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
An election ballot is placed in ballot box outside of the Spokane Public Library on Nov. 7, 2016, in downtown Spokane. With filing week over, the candidate field for the August primary is set.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

There is a lot of code words in political discourse – words that mean something other than, or something well beyond, what they seem to mean.

Whenever someone invokes “mental illness” in relation to homelessness or gun violence, for example, it does not mean that the speaker intends to do something about mental illness in relation to homelessness or gun violence.

No, no. In this context, “mental illness” is code for “won’t do a thing.”

Similarly, when you hear the words “election integrity,” you know you’ve entered the realm of election lies – the scurrilous nonsense about election fraud that has taken hold of a big chunk of the electorate. “Election integrity” is coded just as “mental health” is coded: as a way to drape a bit of normalizing sheep’s clothing onto the mangy wolf of a lie.

Lately, vigilante teams of election conspiracists are going door to door in Washington cities, including Spokane, to see if they can’t cook up evidence of voter fraud – or at least keep the idea of it alive and kicking.

It’s called the Washington Voter Research Project, and it’s run by longtime conservative gadfly Glen Morgan, who for years has bombarded the Public Disclosure Commission with complaints about Democrats.

They are comparing voter registration lists to other data, looking for inconsistencies, sniffing about for fraud. What they are finding so far – according to county auditors all over the state – is a relative few instances of nonfraudulent circumstances, such as military voters and people who have moved or died, according to a Seattle Times report.

Homeowners have complained about this tactic, which some find intimidating. Some have accused the doorbellers of pretending to be elections officials. The secretary of state and county auditors – including Spokane County’s Vicky Dalton – have made it a point to distance themselves from the project.

Some 350 of these volunteer vigilantes are engaged in the campaign – which is similar to other doorbelling pushes in other states associated with the Stop the Steal baloney. It’s driven by the widespread and baseless conviction that there is a lot of fraud in the election system (though this fraud tends to be suspected only when Republicans lose).

Morgan insists that it’s all just a good-faith, nonpartisan effort to ensure … election integrity. Pundits and propagandists who like to gaslight people claim it’s all just a good-faith, nonpartisan effort to protect … election integrity.

The actual aim seems rather obvious: to foment and foster the false belief in a sustained pattern of fraud, where none has been discovered.

Election fraud has been found, over and over and over again, to be extraordinarily rare, in this state and nationally. But the number of people who believe it’s everywhere has surged, and the biggest election lie of them all – that Trump won – is believed by the majority of Republicans.

Onward this nonsense marches, fueled by counterfactual claims, bizarre “evidence” and the swallowing whole of lies told by a former president whose continual dishonesty would be obvious to an alert and reasonably intelligent 6-year-old.

In this context, the code of “election integrity” is an important weapon. It’s used to de-nuttify a nutty movement. To lend a veneer of seriousness and respectability to an baseless falsehood. It’s deployed by those who want to fool you into thinking that lies are facts.

It’s code, meant to communicate to those in the know and to mislead those who aren’t.

In a different matter, the state Supreme Court just slapped down an “election integrity” effort in no uncertain terms. The so-called Washington Election Integrity Coalition United had claimed that Gov. Jay Inslee had allowed or encouraged noncitizens to vote.

This is a big part of the election-integrity code, and it relates to the Great Replacement Theory. This notion, which is a favorite of white supremacists, Tucker Carlson and lots of people in the GOP you might formerly have called “mainstream,” holds that crafty leftists are importing foreigners to take the place of “traditional” Americans (speaking of code) in order to win elections.

The fraud, see, is all part of this big picture.

The lawsuit was absurd in 50 ways. The “evidence” was a secondhand reference to comments made at a Skagit County GOP rally by one woman who claimed to have witnessed Department of Licensing employees registering noncitizens to vote.

Court records indicate the claim seemed based on assumptions made about the ethnicity of people registering to vote – “expressing concern that a ‘Hispanic person’ had expressed interest in registering to vote,” as Attorney General Bob Ferguson put it in a motion.

The court ruled that the group “offered no competent evidence of voter fraud based on noncitizen voting.” In his successful petition for sanctions, Ferguson called the claims in the lawsuit “exceptionally improper” and “devoid of competent evidence.”

The justices fined the group almost $10,000 for the frivolity of its claim, and its attorney was fined $18,800. Ferguson says he plans to file a bar complaint against that attorney, Virginia Shogren.

In a factual world, this would be a serious setback for the “election integrity” movement.

In the coded world of election fraud, it’s liable to make no difference at all.

Editor’s note: This column has been updated to correct that a bar complaint would be filed against the attorney who sued the governor — not a specific call for disbarment.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or at shawnv@spokesman.com.

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