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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Clean voter registration rolls is bipartisan concern

Losing an election is hard. Just ask me, I’ve done it twice. It would be so much easier to blame a rigged election than to accept that maybe you just weren’t the best fit for the position. We’ve been playing “blame the system” since hanging chads in Florida absorbed the nation’s attention in the 2000 presidential election. Then there’s Washington’s 2004 gubernatorial election, where King County found more ballots just in time for the third counting in the Rossi-Gregoire race. Gregoire was declared the winner with a mere 129 vote margin out of 2,746,589 votes cast.

Every vote really does matter.

That’s why the Washington Voter Research Project has more than 350 volunteers working in 23 of Washington’s 39 counties to track down anomalies in the voter registration rolls. Glen Morgan, founder of the project in 2021, would have started a decade ago, but differences between databases and a general lack of enthusiasm postponed the project. “The only people who cared after 2016 were Democrats and then all of them had amnesia after 2020. Everyone who loses thinks they were cheated, everyone who wins thinks it’s perfect.”

Morgan emphasizes the project is a nonpartisan effort to verify publicly available data. Volunteers cross-reference name and address information from state voter registration records, change of address information from the U.S. Postal Service and death records from the Social Security Administration. Mismatched information is flagged as an anomaly and produces a walk-list for volunteers.

“There’s nothing negative about keeping voter rolls as clean as we possibly can,” Morgan said. “Every bad vote suppresses somebody else’s vote.” He said most county auditors across the state have welcomed the effort.

One of those volunteers going door to door is Ruth Ryan. “What we’re doing is very standard, questions are very minimal, just checking the public information to make sure it aligns with what’s actually on the ground. We do not ask people how they voted or who they voted for.”

It has turned out to be a much bigger project than Ryan originally thought because there are more irregularities than she expected. “When voter registration lists became more controlled statewide to keep people from running between counties to vote twice, we lost some of the local control and checks.”

Ryan, who has served as an elected precinct committee officer since 1981, said grassroots proof checking of voter registration lists used to be the responsibility of the precinct committee officers. “Now both parties have been emphasizing PCOs as campaign staff instead of voter registration for their neighborhood. If both Democrat and Republican PCOs would check their lists once a year we’d have less of a problem with what I call fluff.”

About half the time the canvassers are able to confirm there is no problem with the voters’ registration, just a database glitch. But the other half of the anomalies checked door to door generates an “incident,” where something is amiss. Sometimes the fluff is easy to figure out, like when the previous owners are still listed on the voter registration roll at the old address. “Our list might have 10 people registered at a house, two people are living there, six people voting and the two people living there don’t know who the other four people are,” said Morgan.

He is dismissive of the efforts by the nonprofit Electronic Registration Information Center relied upon by the secretary of state. Morgan says the state “is squandering money on a big corporation that’s not doing what it’s supposed to be doing, or we wouldn’t be finding the problems we’re finding now in the field. We pay for the same vendor list ERIC does with slightly less data and we shouldn’t be finding tens of thousands of these problems.”

Alene Lindstrand, volunteer coordinator of the effort in Spokane County, is entering information gathered by the canvassers into a database that will be compiled for appropriate action by county elections officials. “No one should be opposed to facts,” Lindstrom said. “There’s always a decent percentage thanking us for cleaning up voter rolls and it’s very encouraging.” A report is expected in June.

The short-term goal is to clean up current voter registration rolls. Morgan also sees the need for legislative reform to address systemic problems. Most voter registration occurs at the Department of Licensing through the Motor-Voter law. Retired DOL employee Patti Johnson came forward in August 2021 as a whistleblower, speaking to a panel of state representatives including Rep. Rob Chase, R-Spokane. Johnson said DOL employees were directed to register people who knew they weren’t eligible to vote, even against their explicit instructions. “Same-day voter registration is a problem, it invites bad behavior because can’t vet the voter rolls,” said Morgan. “It’s a known defect and there’s almost no way to audit that process.”

Every vote counts. And everyone should be concerned about curing defects in the system.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com

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