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Republicans call for thorough review of 2020 Spokane County election, but county officials unlikely to be able to fulfill request

June 20, 2022 Updated Mon., June 20, 2022 at 10:56 a.m.

The Spokane County Courthouse is seen in August 2020. The Spokane County Republican Party is calling for a comprehensive audit of the 2020 election.   (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane County Courthouse is seen in August 2020. The Spokane County Republican Party is calling for a comprehensive audit of the 2020 election.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

A subcommittee of the Spokane County Republican Party is calling for an audit of the 2020 election, but the county commissioners say they can’t authorize one and it may not be legally feasible.

Matt Hawkins, the party’s state committeeman, presented on Monday a petition to the commissioners asking for a “comprehensive election system audit” to “restore confidence in our elections.”

The county GOP supports the petition, as do 4th Legislative District Reps. Rob Chase and Bob McCaslin. McCaslin is running for county auditor, the office that oversees local elections.

“We’re not trying to say any one person has done anything wrong,” Hawkins said. “We’re not trying to say that any fraud has been committed. We are trying to say we want to restore confidence to the election system.”

The audit for which Republicans are calling wouldn’t be an audit in the traditional sense of the word.

It wouldn’t be a standalone analysis of data and records. Instead, Hawkins said he wants a thorough inspection by a third party of the county’s entire elections process. Everything including the software and hardware of tabulation machines, ballot distribution and collection procedures should be reviewed, he said.

The Spokane County Auditor’s Office has much of the information Hawkins wants and shares it with the public. Some of the petition’s questions can be answered by the state; other requests are unlikely to be granted at all, due to Washington privacy and cyber security laws.

Even if the requests can be legally fulfilled, the Republican Party’s subcommittee is likely pleading its case to the wrong people.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the Board of County Commissioners has the authority to do what you’re asking to do,” said Mark McClain, the commissioners’ attorney. “I think where you guys need to go is the Secretary of State.”

Hawkins said he doesn’t have any evidence of election fraud, inaccurate vote counting or wrongdoing by the county auditor’s office.

Still, the petition includes a long list of questions and concerns regarding the 2020 election, and Hawkins said he thinks the case is more than strong enough to warrant an audit.

“There’s enough evidence that continues to come in and we have even more material on our background that we’re working on that is pertinent to Spokane County,” Hawkins said. “We’re just not ready to address those details at this time.”

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said she plans to respond to Hawkins’ questions and bring the commissioners more information once she’s had a chance to review the petition.

She emphasized that her office does much of what’s being requested.

“We already have a lot of controls and procedures in place,” Dalton said.

Dalton pointed to her office’s recount record as one example of how carefully she and her staff run elections. Spokane County performs recounts when a race is close enough to trigger one. They often don’t change a single vote.

“We are accurate,” Dalton said.

The petition

Some of the petition’s points are general questions about how Spokane County elections work. Dalton said Hawkins’ group never shared their questions with her. She could have answered many of them if they’d asked.

• Who prints the ballots? A print shop in Western Washington.

• How are they mailed out? Dalton’s staff takes over a Spokane insertion facility for a few days and mails them from there, a process Republican observers have seen firsthand.

• Can the county’s tabulation machines connect to the internet? No, they’re connected to closed-circuit servers.

• Who picks up ballots from the post office? The auditor’s office hires bonded couriers employed by DeVries Business Service and who have to pass federal background checks to get into the post office loading dock.

The petition also expresses concern about specific issues.

For example, Spokane County in 2020 had more registered voters than residents for certain age and gender categories.

The Secretary of State’s Office provides those figures, not the auditor’s office. Dalton said she agrees the state needs to review the numbers. They’re estimates, provided by the state’s Office of Financial Management, and probably based off 2010 census counts.

The petition notes that Spokane County had 353,926 registered voters and 382,560 ballots for the 2020 election.

That’s because since 2019, Washington voters can print new ballots for themselves. In 2020, they could do it as many times as they wanted, although there’s now a limit.

“This has been explained numerous times, this is how the system counts when ballots are issued,” Dalton said.

Each ballot is individually identified. When a voter prints out a new one, they invalidate the old one. Printing multiple ballots doesn’t allow someone to vote multiple times.

“We’re only going to count one,” Dalton said.

Hawkins asked why the auditor’s office accepted a $255,000 grant in 2020 from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a Chicago-based nonprofit. The petition suggests the nonprofit is progressive and highlights that it receives funding from “Zuckerberg and his wife,” referring to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

According to its website, the Center for Tech and Civic Life works to connect Americans “with the information they need to become and remain civically engaged, and ensure that our elections are more professional, inclusive, and secure.”

Dalton said her office used $192,000 of the grant. About $150,000 went toward print, radio, TV and internet advertising, which included general, nonpartisan election information, such as voting deadlines. The auditor’s office didn’t have money in its regular budget for those ads, Dalton said.

The rest of the money covered a few different costs. About $26,000 paid for security at the county’s voter services centers. Roughly $10,000 went toward an automated service that alerts voters when something’s wrong with their ballot – the county’s legally required to tell people when that happens.

Some of the money paid for small expenses, even sewing. Dalton gave Royal Upholstery $1,400 to attach handles to the ungainly bags her staff use to carry ballots from drop boxes.


Voter registration

Hawkins and fellow members of his subcommittee say they’ve found voter registration anomalies.

They’re referring to the Washington Voter Research Project’s canvassing effort organized by Glen Morgan, a conservative activist from Thurston County who frequently files campaign finance complaints against Democratic politicians.

The Voter Research Project uses publicly available records to identify addresses it views as potentially suspicious. Canvassing volunteers then knock on the doors of those properties and question the residents.

About 90% of the flagged properties with at-home residents willing to answer canvassers’ questions produced anomalies, said Dennis Hawxhurst, a member of Hawkins’ group who has been involved with the Spokane County canvassing effort.

“We’re not saying that there’s fraudulent stuff going on,” Hawxhurst said. “We’re just trying to fix things for the future.”

Hawxhurst didn’t precisely define what he meant by anomaly or provide the commissioners with the data behind the 90% figure.

However, most of the anomalies are homes with more registered voters than current residents.

A home can have more registered voters than residents for a few reasons. For example, it can happen at a rental property when someone moves out and doesn’t update their registration.

Dalton explained that auditor’s offices constantly update their registration records using information from the Department of Licensing, VoteWA, death certificates, newspaper obituaries and other sources. Still, people don’t always update their voter registration when they move.

Members of the armed forces, missionaries and other individuals living abroad can have different mailing and voting addresses. For instance, if a Spokane resident joins the Air Force and serves overseas, they can continue voting in local elections even if they don’t live in Spokane. They can’t vote in multiple jurisdictions, but a military member could vote in Spokane for decades while living elsewhere.

Morgan’s group has presented its findings to Clark, King and Thurston counties.

“When they reviewed those lists, or samples of those lists, there were no inappropriate registrations,” Dalton said. “Most of the anomalies were actually military or overseas civilian voters. Perfectly legitimate, perfectly legal, and people who should not be disenfranchised in their right to vote.”

Security

The GOP petition argues that Spokane County elections must become more secure and that cameras and security systems should be installed.

Dalton said her office has a grant from the state to install cameras and she’d like to place them at every entry and exit point to the elections facility. She said she’d also like a security system with motion detectors and other features.

“We are moving forward with cameras,” Dalton said.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French made clear that if the auditor’s office needs money to improve security, it’ll have it.

“I will find the funding,” he said, adding that he expects commissioners Mary Kuney and Josh Kerns would be equally committed to ensuring accurate ballot counts.

Paying for the cameras may not be the main problem, Dalton said. She said the county can’t easily install cameras everywhere.

Some drop boxes aren’t on county property. Plus, any video the cameras record will be subject to public records requests.

That presents a challenge, Dalton said, because some election information can’t be released to the public for security and privacy reasons.

Public records staff would have to redact computer screens and signatures on ballot envelopes, for example. Signatures have to remain confidential by law. It could be administratively difficult and costly to have employees sift through and block out large amounts of confidential information before releasing footage.

Dalton said she also doesn’t want to create a scenario wherein she’d have to disclose to the public the precise layouts of her office’s security features.

“Why would I tell people, ‘This is where our security is and go ahead and figure out a way around it,’ ” she said.


Cyber security

Hawkins’ group wants to investigate the physical equipment the auditor’s office uses to count ballots and share vote numbers.

Much of what they’re asking for they probably can’t get.

For instance, Hawkins said he wants to compare paper ballots with the digital images of those ballots created by the county machines.

County auditor’s offices and the Secretary of State’s office run multiple kinds of tests to make sure machines read ballots correctly. But neither the paper ballots, nor their digital representations, can be released to the public, Dalton said.

“In the state of Washington, ballots are not public record,” she said. “They are not disclosable.”

Hawkins said he also wants a third party to inspect the tabulation machines.

Dalton explained that access to those machines is tightly restricted to ensure that outside parties can’t tamper with the equipment.

For instance, when the machines need software updates, the only people allowed in the room are representatives from the Secretary of State’s office, auditor’s office staff and sometimes individuals from the vendor. The updates are made using an encrypted drive, not over the internet.

‘I don’t have the authority to do what you’re asking’

Robin Ball, the Spokane County Republican Party’s state committeewoman and former chair, said she doesn’t think there’s been significant voter fraud locally.

She still has concerns though, and said an audit by a third party should help restore faith in elections.

“It’s important that we do our best to put peoples’ minds at ease because it’s something we’re hearing at the door a lot,” Ball said.

French acknowledged there isn’t any evidence of fraud or wrongdoing on anyone’s part in Spokane County.

All three commissioners said they’d like to see the information Hawkins referenced when his subcommittee can provide it.

“The fact that they didn’t have all their data assimilated but they were working on it, OK, great, when you’re done, give it to us, let’s see,” French said of Hawkins’ presentation. “Anecdotal information is entertaining, but it’s not facts. We have to rely on actual facts and evidence of fraud.”

Hawkins said his subcommittee plans to provide evidence of registration anomalies. He added that his group is looking at additional information gathered through public records requests.

“We are working on some other material that we think is even more significant,” Hawkins said. “We just are not ready to address it today.”

He said the subcommittee is working with experts to analyze data logs from elections equipment. Hawkins said he wasn’t sure off the top of his head precisely what information those data logs contain or what equipment they’re from. He said he couldn’t reveal the experts’ identities without first getting their permission, but described them as “well-credentialed.”

French strongly encouraged Hawkins and the other Republican Party attendees to make their case for an audit to the Secretary of State. He said he agreed with Hawkins’ position but believes the matter lies outside the commissioners’ jurisdiction.

“Election integrity is something that I am highly concerned about because I’m on the ballot this fall and I want to make sure that every one of those ballots I earn, I get,” French said.

“I also took an oath to defend the state constitution, and if that tells me I don’t have the authority to do what you’re asking me to do, I can’t do it whether I wanted to or not.”

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