By Jeff Switzer and Scott North Herald Writers
Snohomish County voters regularly cast their ballots within sight of the Space Needle, the pyramids of Egypt and the Eiffel Tower, and from sunny Yuma to frigid Iceland to the tropical beaches of Thailand.
Ballots that will decide local mayors’ races and tax rates are sent around the globe by the thousands to snowbirds, ministers, teachers and sailors.
A handful of ballots are even emailed to voters, including to a jazz fluegelhorn player from Edmonds who has spent the last 20 years living in Salzburg, Austria, a Herald computer analysis of voting records found.
The sacred right to vote appears alive and more convenient than ever. Unanswered is whether Snohomish County officials are taking sufficient steps to ensure that only those legally allowed are casting ballots.
Most people naively assume that voter rolls are pristine and everyone is voting honestly, said Snohomish County Councilman Gary Nelson, a Republican from Edmonds.
“I’ve always questioned it, for many years,” Nelson said. “I don’t know the full breadth of the errors in the database.”
Over the past five years, a majority of Snohomish County voters have made it clear that they would rather participate in mail-in elections. County Council members earlier this month voted to make the switch for all of the 355,000 people registered to vote here. That means no more trips to the polls, where voter identification is required.
The move to the convenience of all-mail elections is occurring at a time when state lawmakers have mandated increased scrutiny of voter registration.
The crackdown was prompted by doubts during vote counts in the contentious 2004 gubernatorial contest between now Gov. Christine Gregoire and Republican challenger Dino Rossi.
Secretary of State Sam Reed is scouring voter databases from Washington’s 39 counties, preparing a 3.5 million-voter master list. The hope is to purge voting rolls of felons, voters who have died and people who are registered to vote in two or more counties.
“We are moving out of the honor system. Before, (voters) would fill out the form and we’d accept it. We are beyond that,” said Nick Handy, state elections manager.
About one in 10 Washington voters is registered in Snohomish County.
By the numbers
Local elections officials have no plan to question voting registrations. The Herald’s analysis found reasons for a closer look:
• Numerous people are registered to vote at public buildings around the county. While elections officials say some of those voters are homeless, others are not. For example, one of those voters is a volunteer firefighter who since 1990 has claimed a Snohomish fire station as his voting address. Other records indicate he has kept apartments elsewhere.
• More than 100 people are listed twice in the county’s voting database, with all of their information duplicated.
• Thousands of local voters — 5,300, not counting those in the military – have voting addresses in the county but receive their ballots in the mail elsewhere. County elections officials have no simple process to confirm the voters’ ties to the community.
• About 1,900 local voters have their ballots mailed out of state, including more than 200 each in Arizona and California. Property sale records show many out-of-state voters have sold the Snohomish County homes where they registered to vote.
• The county already has 211,000 voters who previously opted to vote by mail. About 17,000 people receive their ballots at post office boxes, and more through personal mailboxes. One popular mailing address for Snohomish County voters is a Boeing Co. work site in King County.
Voter registrations tied to post office boxes are at the heart of a politically contentious challenge to the voting rolls in King County. After Republicans raised questions, elections officials there began investigating the accuracy of hundreds of voter registrations.
Legacy of trust
Depriving someone of the right to vote is not taken lightly. Short of dying, committing a felony or facing formal challenge, voters who use post office boxes might stay on the rolls in perpetuity, state elections officials said.
It’s all part of a decades-old legacy of trust and a presumption, actually codified in state law, that most voters tell the truth.
It’s up to voters to keep their voter registration accurate, county elections manager Carolyn Diepenbrock said. “This is a partnership with them. We cannot do it without their support.”
State law provides that the voter’s last-known address is where they are entitled to vote – regardless of where they go – until the auditor is informed otherwise. The right to participate in elections travels with them.
“Someone may not be here for 15 years, but this is where their heart is and this is where they want to vote,” Diepenbrock said.
The federal government makes it easy, paying for overseas postage.
“We will mail a ballot anywhere in the world, as you know,” elections supervisor Wendy Mauch said.
County elections officials know their voter database has flaws, but they are cautious about challenging anyone’s right to cast a ballot. They don’t believe state law gives them that power.
Instead, auditor’s office employees focus most on making sure ineligible voters don’t register, Diepenbrock said.
“We don’t have any authority to go out and police our database” and start removing names of registered voters, she said.
Each election, ballots are mailed wherever voters request.
For local voters, that includes every state in the union and Puerto Rico. Ballots also go to voters in Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Rome, London, France, Reykjavik, Santiago, New York, Los Angeles and Mesa, Ariz., records show.
“It’s just a practical recognition that it doesn’t matter where you get your ballot,” said Handy, the state elections manager.
Legislation adopted since the razor-thin 2004 gubernatorial election requires new registered voters to provide a birth date, driver’s license number or partial Social Security number and address, and receive a permanent voter ID.
However, these steps won’t remove current voters with inaccurate addresses unless other voters challenge their participation in elections, Handy said.
No place like home
Taking away the right to vote is tough, Handy said, particularly when state law protects voting rights for people who must leave home – people in the military, students and workers whose jobs take them far afield.
“You reside where you intend to reside, it’s not the number of times you put your head on a pillow,” Handy said. “And you reside there until you intend to reside someplace else. We don’t have the luxury (of confirming addresses) for 3.5 million people in the state of Washington.”
The presumption that a voter’s address is valid and accurate is based on the oath they sign when they register, Handy said. What happens after that is on the voters’ shoulders.
“People move too much,” Handy said. “We’re dealing with a half-dozen moving targets and imperfect databases. No one in this office is going to guarantee perfection, particularly on the felon issue. We do promise dramatic improvement over the old system and a good-faith effort.”
Keeping track of addresses is difficult, given that each year about one-fifth of the Puget Sound populace moves from one place to another, said Pam Floyd, state voter database project manager.
“We will catch them if they die, or commit a felony, or if they are a duplicate” – registered to vote in more than one county, Floyd said. The housing boom makes it difficult for computers to identify ineligible addresses, she said.
The way Snohomish County has grown makes monitoring voters especially challenging.
Through the 1990s, the county led the state in the number of people who moved here from somewhere else in the U.S. During that decade, nearly 77,000 people came here from communities where they may have been legally registered to vote.
King County, meanwhile, saw a net loss of more than 8,000 potential voters.
Then factor in how people live.
Each day, 100,000 commuters leave Snohomish County for jobs in King County. More than 300 Snohomish County voters have their ballots mailed to Seattle addresses, many of them apparent workplaces.
Larger social shifts have made heading to the polls to vote an anachronism, according to one expert.
“That’s gone, but so is the society that it was a part of,” said David Olson, a professor emeritus who taught for decades in the University of Washington political science department.
“We simply tend not to have such gatherings in public places anymore,” he said. “What we’re seeing here are social changes that give rise to changes in the way we conduct our politics.”
A perfect election using pristine voter rolls is an impossible dream, Olson said.
“You can take this question of residency and meaning of ‘home’ down to the splitting of hairs, and I quite frankly think it’s not worth it. You’re never going to be able to get a perfect election, given the uncertainty of things like residency,” he said.
The definition of residency is at the core of a legal battle for Greg Stephens, the Snohomish County Council candidate whose county voting rights were stripped in December.
Stephens lives mostly with his girlfriend in a Bothell apartment across the line in King County, not at his rundown Maltby home.
Stephens pays property taxes to Snohomish County, is a booster for Maltby cityhood and took out loans against his house to pay for his County Council bid.
A neighbor of Stephens’ persuaded county Auditor Bob Terwilliger to remove him from the voting rolls because he didn’t sleep in Maltby.
Stephens has a high-powered attorney appealing the revocation, and says he always intended to move back into the house when he had the money for repairs and permits.
No small matter
Ensuring the integrity of voting rolls is no small matter, County Councilman Nelson said.
“The vast majority (of voters) are certainly honest in how they treat the privilege of voting, but you are going to find, as we do every year, quite a few who are not honest, who in essence try to get through the system with a ballot.
“If they’re not caught, the ballots are counted. It puts them in question and it dilutes the confidence that people should be able to have in the accuracy of our voting system,” Nelson added.
Until the law is changed, local elections officials say they will continue to extend trust.
“It is the honor system, and that’s what all elections in the state of Washington are based on,” Diepenbrock said. “We believe in our voters. We believe they are telling the truth.”
Who’s an eligible voter?
Eligible voters are “all persons of the age of 18 years or over who are citizens of the United States and who have lived in the state, county and precinct 30 days immediately preceding the election at which they offer to vote.”
Voting or registering to vote when ineligible are felonies punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.