WA senate leader's address accidentally moved outside his district

Staff writerOctober 9, 2013 

 A mix-up at a driver licensing office has caused the leader of the state Senate to be mistakenly registered to vote outside of his legislative district, according to the state Department of Licensing.

Theoretically, a state legislator registering to vote outside the district he or she represents is grounds for removal from office. But in the case of state Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, his voter registration was accidentally updated to a home address on Mercer Island after he renewed his driver license in July, a spokesman for the Department of Licensing said Wednesday.

Tom’s 8,000-square-foot waterfront home in Medina is within the 48th district he represents, but the Mercer Island address where he is now registered to vote is in the neighboring 41st district, according to data from the Secretary of State’s office.

Tom, a Democrat who leads the mostly Republican Senate majority caucus, said he doesn’t live on Mercer Island, and hasn’t updated his voter registration to list a new address.

“I’m where I’ve always been,” Tom said Tuesday.

Brad Benfield, a spokesman for the state Department of Licensing, said it appears that when Tom went to a licensing office to renewed his driver’s license, his information was crossed with another customer’s who was helped a few minutes later at the same computer terminal.

Through a program commonly known as Motor Voter, the state Department of Licensing is required to ask people if they would like to register to vote when they apply for a driver license. The agency also asks people if they want to update their voter registration records when they change the address on their driver license.

Somehow, someone else’s address was sent to the Secretary of State and used to update Tom’s voter registration, Benfield said. Tom wouldn’t have been aware of the change, Benfield said, because the temporary license Tom was issued that day listed his home address in Medina.

“It doesn’t look as if Senator Tom as part of his transaction requested an address change,” Benfield said Wednesday. “We’re still trying to get down to the very root of what happened or why it happened, but at this point it looks like it’s our error.”

Benfield wrote in an email later Wednesday that the Department of Licensing is “not aware of any other cases resulting in an involuntary change to voter registration records.”

 “It very much looks at this point like the error was made by an operator, not the system,” Benfield said. “So, the bottom line is, we haven’t received any other concerns or complaints of this happening before.”

Had Tom willfully changed his voter registration to an address outside his district, it could have been grounds for him to lose his seat in the state Senate.

The state constitution requires Washington lawmakers to be registered to vote within their legislative districts to run for office there.

State law also says that an elected official’s office can become vacant by “his or her ceasing to be a legally registered voter of the district … from which he or she shall have been elected or appointed.”

Tom said he’s relieved to hear his voter registration was updated inadvertently, rather than intentionally by someone with nefarious intentions. Officials with the Department of Licensing have assured him that they'll correct his voter registration records, he said.

“It would be nice to know what the heck happened, but I’d rather it be a systems error,” Tom said Wednesday. “You’d hate to think there are people doing mischievous things with people’s voting rights.”

UPDATE 7:49 a.m. Oct. 11:The Department of Licensing sent the director of King County Elections a letter Thursday acknowledging the mistake and saying Tom's information had been corrected in the DOL system.

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