Prosecutors in King County are looking at possible criminal charges related to a voter-registration drive held in 2006, echoing the suspicions of impropriety raised during the razor-close gubernatorial election of 2004.
King County's acting prosecutor, Dan Satterberg, is reviewing 1,829 questioned voter-registration forms turned in last year by people working for the national activist group ACORN, or the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. A decision on whether to file criminal charges is expected in late July, Satterberg's spokesman, Dan Donohoe, said Friday.
"We're dealing with possible criminal charges with regard to fraudulent registrations. No one voted from those registrations," Donohoe said. "The investigation is focusing on fewer than 10 individuals hired by ACORN."
ACORN, a national advocacy group for low-income people with chapter offices in states including Washington, has been targeted for fraud investigations in other states. Four ex-workers pleaded guilty this month in Missouri, and ACORN spokesman Charles D. Johnson said the group is cooperating with investigators in Seattle.
King County elections workers who handled 1,829 registrations submitted too late to qualify for the 2006 election found them suspicious. It became clear that a handful of people filled out many forms in similar handwriting, elections spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said.
The case has attracted the attention of state elections officials, and ACORN's activities in Pierce County triggered a lawsuit over elections records that is pending in an Olympia court.
Secretary of State Sam Reed, whose handling of the 2004 election was criticized by some Republicans, has worked behind the scenes to urge "tough" action on the suspected voter-registration fraud.
Reed has avoided a public call for criminal charges in the ACORN case, and his aides initially rejected requests this week for comment. But Reed sent an e-mail to the home of then-King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng in October, telling him that ACORN's voter-registration drive needed to be investigated.
"I'm sorry to bother you at home about this, but it's very important," Reed wrote to Maleng in an e-mail from his personal address. "Many cases, like this, have been referred to Prosecutors and ignored. I'd appreciate it if you would have your office go after this. We need to show that we're tough on voter fraud. Right?"
"We need some good examples of being touch (sic) on voter fraud to help regain some confidence and trust in the system," Reed added a day later in an official e-mail to Nick Handy, his state elections director.
The e-mails came to light after a records request by the Building Industry Association of Washington. BIAW posted some of the e-mails on its Web site.
Assistant Secretary of State Steve Excell said Friday that the number of questioned registrations - potentially 1,800 - was enough to merit alarm and a message from Reed shortly after he learned about the possible fraud.
Beyond that, Excell said, Reed and his elections staff did not want to make a public statement calling for an investigation. He said they think it is their role to let prosecutors do their job.
"We butt out and wait for the end of the investigation. We don't want it to appear like we are trying to pressure anyone," Excell said.
The BIAW has criticized the work of elections officials in King County, where most of the questioned voting took place in the 2004 gubernatorial race. Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire eventually edged out Republican Dino Rossi by 133 votes after two recounts and Rossi's court challenge, which detailed allegations of vote fraud and improper voting by felons.
Association vice president Tom McCabe said Friday he urged Reed to go public and make a forceful call for a federal investigation and prosecution in the ACORN case, but Reed has not done so.
McCabe also urged federal prosecution related to voting fraud in the 2004 election, and he separately sent a letter to U.S. Attorney Jeff Sullivan in March, urging him to act on the suspected fraudulent vote registrations.
McCabe said he thinks Sullivan is taking voter fraud more seriously than his predecessor and that some kind of prosecution will occur because the fraud appears "so egregious."
After suspicions were raised about the 1,829 registrations from ACORN, King County elections workers sampled 400 registrations. Only two had valid phone numbers, and in both cases the people reached by phone had not done the registrations, elections staffers said.
Donohoe said investigators include prosecutors, King County sheriff's deputies and the U.S. Attorney's Office.
BIAW also is in court to seek documents from Pierce County related to the county's elections office and ACORN registrations. Pierce elections officials and prosecutors did not return phone calls Friday.
McCabe said 300 registrations in the Pierce County case are from "the exact same address. It turns out to be a homeless shelter."
Residents are allowed to stay at the shelter for 30 days, and only one person voted from that address in 2004, which makes it unlikely so many would have registered there, McCabe said.
Brad Shannon is political editor for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-753-1688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.