The Washington Court of Appeals has found that the state's procedure for allowing underage voters to register but not vote before turning 18 does not violate the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002.
The decision (linked here) was the third straight in favor of the Secretary of State Sam Reed's office in the case brought by Robert Edelman, a Black Diamond activist and analyst with the Freedom Foundation (formerly Evergreen Freedom Foundation) of Olympia.
David Ammons, spokesman for Reed’s office, said: "We're pleased the court has taken note that we are going the second mile to make sure underage voters are not given ballots."
Edelman contended that letting voter registration applications remain "pending" until underage applicants came of age was a violation of HAVA, and he challenged the mail-in voter registration form used by Reed’s staff.
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Edelman's research showed there were 16,085 apparent underage registrations and 127 underage ballots counted from January 2000 to March 2008. But a hearings examiner who upheld Reed's practices previously said there was evidence the system was working because there were no incidents in 2007 and only four illegal ballots in 2008. (One of those was a Lacey youth who voted in a non-binding presidential primary.)
The ruling denied Edelman attorney fees, even though the Freedom Foundation found a minor victory in elements of the decision.
The opinion was authored by appeals Judge Marywave Van Deren (joined by Judges J. Robin Hunt and Lisa Worswick). Previously, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch had upheld the hearings judge in favor of Reed, whose agency administers state elections and keeps the statewide voter database.
In a footnote to her opinion, Van Deren said that even if Edelman had prevailed on one of his issues in court that Reed's actions were "substantially justified." She found that the practice of “pending” underage voter registrations "is not expressly prohibited by HAVA" and comports with a state policy to encourage all eligible voters to cast ballots.
Michael Reitz, general counsel for Freedom Foundation, represented Edelman and did not rule out an appeal to the state Supreme Court. A statement from Reitz painted the ruling as a partial win for Edelman:
The key legal question was whether Secretary Reed has an obligation to prevent inaccurate voter registrations. The Secretary argued that he need only remove ineligible voters after registration but has no duty to prevent the registration from occurring. We argued that the duty to maintain an accurate database includes rejecting ineligible voter registrations. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals did not agree.
Nevertheless, we are pleased with some of the outcomes of this case. After we sued, the Secretary of State advised elections staff to adopt written procedures for handling underage voter registrations, and the state has revised its registration application to tell underage voters not to complete the form. These actions would not have occurred without Bob Edelman’s persistent work with the elections office. It’s a step in the right direction and we will continue to work to ensure accurate election procedures.