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Spin Control: Legislators again looking at changes to Washington election laws

Lights come on in the domed Legislative Building on the Washington Capitol campus as evening approaches in Olympia.  (Jim Camden/For The Spokesman-Review / For The Spokesman-Review)

As happens in most sessions, legislators have proposals to alter the way they got their jobs by making some changes in the state’s election laws.

This should come as no surprise, because regardless of their other qualifications, all politicians tend to think they are experts on elections, having won at least one in the not too distant past. Because some eke out close victories and some win in blowouts, and some win through stances on key issues and others primarily get by on name familiarity or the party preference listed on the ballot, their expertise and the ideas they offer tend to be pretty diverse.

Some election changes proposed this year would merely tweak the system, such as a bill that would move the date to file one’s candidacy petition for the primary from late May to early May. Most candidates have been running for months – or at least talking about it – by that point so moving up final paperwork deadline merely makes it official a bit sooner and forces vacillators to spit or get off the spot.

Another would require Voter’s Pamphlets to contain a warning on the inside cover that it is a felony to vote if one is not an American citizen, is a felon who has not had voting rights restored, or to vote for someone else, and print a phone number to report suspected instances of voter fraud. Even though such fraud is rare, considering all the other information that comes in a voter pamphlet – last year’s had seven pages of info before getting to the first ballot issue – such a warning doesn’t seem out of bounds.

Some are familiar favorites, such as a proposal to allow school districts to pass bond issues with a simple majority, rather than the current three-fifths requirement. School districts often struggle with the final five percentage points in that super majority in tough times or with controversial plans. But such a change requires a constitutional amendment, and the super majority often indicates the community sentiment will remain strong through the decades needed to pay off the bonds.

Washington elections laws have become among the nation’s most liberal in recent years, through online registration, all-mail balloting and a 2017 voters rights law designed to address local systems that can be weighted against minorities. After an attempt to further address possible biases failed last year, supporters are back with a somewhat scaled-down version.

At a hearing of the Senate State Government and Elections Committee Friday, supporters praised the proposal for allowing an easier challenge in areas where candidates are elected in distinct geographic districts in a primary but must run city or county-wide in a general election, where a district’s racial or ethnic majority can become an overall minority. City and county officials said they appreciated the changes from last year but wondered about a provision that would require local governments to pay the legal cost of a challenge even if the challengers lost.

The bill will likely see some amendments before the Senate committee votes, possibly this week, on whether to send it to the floor. The House State Government Committee, which held its hearing last week, voted to send an amended version of the companion bill to the floor on Friday.

There also are some novel ideas, from either end of the political spectrum, that may have limited prospects.

Democrats in the Senate and the House have matching proposals for “Universal Civic Duty Voting” that would require all eligible citizens to be registered to vote unless they specifically opt out through a waiver. That would increase the total number of registered voters because while Washington has about 4.8 million registered voters, an estimated 10% of people who are eligible to register don’t.

But, you might say, if they aren’t all that interested in registering, won’t they be unlikely to vote? The bills have an answer for that, too, by requiring all registered voters to cast a ballot in every primary and general election. They could mail in a blank ballot, but it would be illegal not to vote, although the bill does not spell out any penalty for failing to do so.

Unlike the changes to the voting rights statutes, proposals for Universal Civic Duty Voting haven’t been set for a hearing in either chamber. That’s a bad sign at least for the Senate version, which has Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, chairman of the committee that would hear the bill, in control of the schedule.

Sen. Phil Fortunato, a conservative Republican firebrand from Auburn, is proposing the state test its voter registration and ballot validation by hiring “hackers to probe the system” by trying to register in multiple counties, cast ballots and have them counted. The hacking would be under the supervision of the Secretary of State’s office, which oversees the state’s election law.

Fortunato labeled it the State Elections Confidence Using Rigorous Examinations or SECURE Act, proving if nothing else that Republicans are better at coming up with catchy acronyms for their legislation.

At Friday’s hearing, Fortunato likened the hackers to teens hired by the Department of Licensing, who try to buy alcohol in stings designed to catch liquor stores selling to minors. They wouldn’t be breaking the law because they would be “agents of the state,” he said.

“It may not, in fact, be a problem, but we don’t know until we test it,” he added.

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, scoffed at the proposal, contending that voter fraud is “negligible,” and suggested Fortunato spend some time with county auditors to learn more about the systems already in place to catch duplicate registrations.

“This is a solution looking for a problem,” she said.

Hackers looking for a green light from the state to test their skills might not want to get their hopes up as it may also be a solution looking for a pathway to passage.

It has no listed cosponsors in the Senate, no companion bill in the House and no date on the Senate committee calendar for a chance to advance to the full chamber.

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