County auditor backs call for proof of citizenship for voters

EVERETT — Election officials in Washington believe that every voter casting a ballot in the state this year will be a U.S. citizen.

They just can’t prove it with certainty.

“When I get asked ‘How do you know,’ my answer is that they have signed an oath,” Snohomish County auditor Carolyn Weikel said. “But we don’t have any tools to verify anyone’s citizenship.”

That’s why Weikel backs Secretary of State Kim Wyman’s call for Washington to comply with a federal law known as REAL ID that requires state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards have security enhancements and be given to those who can prove they’re legally in the United States.

Washington is the only state where one can get a standard driver’s license or I.D. card without showing proof of legal presence in the U.S.

“It is important that we point out to the Legislature that this is a very sensitive issue to the public and there is a need for them to take action on the REAL I.D. issue in the upcoming session,” Weikel said Monday.

Island County auditor Sheilah Crider is on board too. She, like Weikel, said implementing the federal statute will further bolster public confidence in the integrity of the election process.

“This is the time to make this change,” she said. “We don’t believe we have any non-citizens registered. If we have one, it is one too many.”

Crider said she certainly hoped implementing the federal law “would not deter anyone from exercising their rights as citizens.”

To be eligible to vote in Washington a person must be a U.S. citizen, at least 18 years old, a resident of the county in which they are registering and not a convicted felon disqualified by a court order or under the supervision of the state Department of Corrections.

Registration forms contain a box that the person must check affirming everything on the form is true. There are ways for election workers to verify age, residence and a felon’s status but not their citizenship.

The verification blindspot isn’t new but it’s not gotten much attention because voting by non-citizens hasn’t been a problem in Washington. Nothing like in 2004 when hundreds of felons voted when they shouldn’t have. That led to new laws and a new database.

But the citizenship matter is getting attention now was a result of a tragedy and a heated political campaign.

Federal authorities initially — and wrongly — said the Oak Harbor man accused of gunning down five people in the Cascade Mall was a permanent resident. Until alleged shooter Arcan Cetin’s citizenship had been confirmed, election officials were explaining how a non-citizen could get away with casting a ballot.

Wyman said Friday the questions surrounding Cetin’s eligibility “shined a bright light” on the inability of election administrators under existing law to “confirm the citizenship of a registered voter. It is an example of laws that need to be perfected.”

Wyman, a Republican, is locked in a tough fight for re-election with Democrat Tina Podlodowski. The challenger wasted little time in criticizing the incumbent’s proposal.

Podlodowski issued a statement accusing Wyman of attempting to “score political points” by “intentionally inflaming anti-immigrant sentiments by suggesting non-citizens are trying to vote in Washington State.”

In the same release, she said Wyman’s proposal is “both unoriginal and simply old news” and argued that complying with REAL ID has been on lawmakers’ agenda for 2017 for some time.

Wyman responded Monday with a statement blasting Podlodowski for fanning the “flames of division by making this about immigration.”

Meanwhile, a leader of the ACLU of Washington, which has opposed the law at the federal and state level, also pushed back on the secretary of state.

Shankar Narayan, the group’s technology and liberty project director, said the proposal is “a solution looking for a problem.

“There is no credible evidence of non-citizens voting in Washington,” he said. “Rather than adding layers of bureaucracy that will deter legitimate voters or falsely stigmatizing immigrants, our public officials should be making the ballot more, rather than less, accessible.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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