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This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Sue Lani Madsen: Rebuilding trust in election integrity

Trust is relationship-based, not technology-based. Unfortunately, three recent systems-focused actions by statewide elected Democrats work against rebuilding trust in the integrity of Washington’s elections.

First was SB 5843, which was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee and went into effect on June 6. After failing to convince three counties to accept nationally standard Albert sensors on their internet-based computer networks, Democrats moved legislation to coerce cooperation with a big stick. It’s a state mandate requiring connection to one particular national monitoring system intended to detect hackers. Counties choosing other technical systems are ineligible for election security funding grants.

But the Albert sensor missed a 2020 ransomware attack on Lincoln County – it only recognizes known hostile addresses. Lincoln County now uses different tools for network security. Ferry County also removed the device, and Grant County never installed one. It’s not hard to understand why there’s little trust in its usefulness from these three neighboring counties. Once bitten, twice shy.

It’s also not difficult to understand why most counties accept the system. Albert sensors are ubiquitous nationally, they seem harmless and besides what choice is there if the county wants the funding. We’ve all clicked the popup “I accept the terms and conditions” box on websites just to get on with life online and understand we risk getting our data hacked. Organizations often aren’t much different in decision-making.

The holdout counties are driven by unsatisfactorily answered questions. An Albert sensor for monitoring and reporting internet activity is only connected to a county’s administrative network, which does not or should not include the required stand-alone elections network. Since there is no connection to the elections network, skeptics question the value of networking county software nationally in securing elections while giving Albert and its software engineers access to county databases. In an interview when SB 5843 legislation was being considered in January, Mary Blechschmidt, Lincoln County GOP chair asked, “It surveils county networks, but could be made bi-directional and we’d never know it.”

Then there was the consent decree signed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson – who’s also a gubernatorial candidate – eliminating Washington’s constitutional requirement for 30-days residency before registering to vote. For an attorney general who claims he is always ready to fight for Washington citizens, consenting to this decree sends the wrong signal when illegal immigration through a poorly controlled U.S.-Mexico border is at record levels. Any action softening residency requirements now undermines efforts to rebuild trust.

Most concerning in Washington’s all vote by mail system is loosening of guidance from Secretary of State Steve Hobbs on checking signatures. According to new training documents, the basis for examining signatures has shifted. Under WAC 434-261-052, the ballot declaration signature must be assumed to be valid unless there are “multiple, significant and obvious discrepancies” from the signature on record.

The old training started from a position of neutrality and looked for obvious signs of both discrepancy and legitimacy. That’s how forensic document verification is supposed to be done.

The new training guidance may also have legal problems. In Michigan, a judge recently ruled on a case over a similar question brought by the RNC, the Michigan Republican Party and the National Republican Congressional Committee, saying “that the ‘initial presumption’ of validity in signature verification of absentee-ballot applications and envelopes mandated by the December 2023 guidance manual” issued by Benson “is incompatible with the Constitution and laws of the State of Michigan.”

Hobbs’ new standard may be well-intentioned but creates the potential to disenfranchise voters by failing to balance priorities. Signature verification is a subjective judgment affected by how recently someone attended training as well as the culture of the county. Ballot totals in counties with a political mindset to make voting easier may be inflated, but votes suppressed in other counties approaching signature verification with a focus on making it harder to cheat.

In Washington, that means a higher percentage of votes counted in left-leaning counties like King and tighter percentage in right leaning counties like Lincoln. Complaints from progressives that rejecting a signature disenfranchises voters who were questioned overlooks the disenfranchisement of voters who followed all the rules but then find their vote negated by a questionable ballot.

The solution can’t just be looser signature verification everywhere, but more accuracy in assuring every vote is valid. A higher rate of challenged ballots should be a welcome sign that signature verification is working. The process for “curing” a challenged ballot is not hard if you’re not a cheater.

Voting should be easy and cheating should be hard was one of the core principles identified by the Braver Angels in its recently released Trustworthy Elections Campaign report. Next week’s column will look at some of the 727 unanimously adopted actions that came out of 26 politically balanced workshops held across the country over the past three years. There are ways to rebuild trust, but it will take leadership from all sides open to backing off the rhetoric and rebuilding relationships.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at Madsen is a co-chair of the Washington Braver Angels Alliance.

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