The state's Democratic and Republican parties worked over the weekend to turn out voters ahead of Tuesday's election deadline, but they also were getting in position to fix flawed ballot signatures in case any close races emerge after the Nov. 2 voting deadline.
State elections director Nick Handy said Friday it’s clear both Republicans and Democrats are “very organized” in the event they need to challenge ballots or deal with a recount. “They have their attorney teams set up to move immediately into what is called ‘the next campaign.’ There is the campaign that leads up to the election (Nov. 2) and the campaign that begins after.’’
The Washington governor’s race was decided by razor close 133 votes in 2004 after two recounts and a court challenge and a Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race in 2008 was not decided until recounts and a court challenge the following year.
This year, Washington races are running close for U.S. Senate, the 3rd Congressional District and other seats, and the political parties have lawyers prepared if there is trouble.
“We do have them at the ready. They are sort of on an on-call basis,” state Republican Party chairman Luke Esser said of the legal team, calling it a standard procedure now. “But they are ready should they be needed.”
His counterpart, Dwight Pelz of the Democratic Party, said that for “any close Democratic election across the state we will be sending monitors and watch what is going on.’’
If a race is still close after a few days and the outcome could change, “we will mobilize a response,” Pelz said, noting the closest race in 2008 was for Island County commissioner. “The Democratic Party is prepared to make sure all the votes are counted in close elections – at the county level, at the legislative level and at the congressional level.’’
But going into the campaign’s final weekend, the two parties’ focus was still on getting out the vote, according to Pelz and Esser. And many candidates were still making tours of the state – including Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s planned stops in a dozen cities, including Olympia on Sunday. Murray’s Republican challenger Dino Rossi was crisscrossing the state, too.
And in the hotly contested 3rd Congressional District, Democrat Denny Heck and Republican Jaime Herrera were making final appearances in the Vancouver and Longview areas where most of the voters are.
The intensity of this election cycle has been reflected in heavy spending by political interests this election cycle, but also by early voter interest. Mail-in ballots are being returned at a quicker-than-usual pace in a state where 38 of 39 counties (except Pierce) votes strictly by mail.
Secretary of State Sam Reed is predicting an unusually high 66 percent turnout for a mid-term election, and Handy said it appears 39 percent of voters statewide had returned ballots as of Friday. In Thurston County, Auditor Kim Wyman expects at least a 70 percent turnout and she estimated 38 percent had been returned through Thursday.
Wyman said she also is getting requests for information about rejected ballots earlier than she can ever remember. For years she’s received requests to know which voters have returned ballots so campaigns running phone banks can know which voters not to bother and which to target.
But information requests now are coming before the election from political parties that want the names of voters whose signatures are flawed and whose ballots won’t be counted unless the voter verifies the signature, Wyman said.
“We haven’t had that before (the election) so that tells me they are looking for something that might not go their way or that they could use in court if there is a discrepancy or problem,’’ Wyman said. She said there have been statewide requests for that kind of information with county elections offices.
In Pierce County, elections manager Mike Rooney said he’s gotten requests for daily notices on flawed signatures, and the information is being turned over to the two major state party organizations and to individuals who have requested them.
Esser said Republicans are collecting the flawed-signature information in advance of Nov. 2, but Pelz of the Democrats said he was not aware of his party taking that extra step – until after the election.
But political parties have used the rejected-ballot information – notably the Democratic Party, which tracked down likely Democratic voters with defective signatures in the 2004 governor’s election – to encourage voters to fix the signatures and get the ballots counted.
Because elections offices around the state were getting requests, Handy of the Office of the Secretary of State said his agency posted a standardized form on its web site to assist those who want the names of voters whose ballots have been rejected.
“From our perspective this is what we consider a disfavored practice,’’ Handy said. “We encourage the voter to deal directly with the elections office. We want the communication to go back and forth there.’’
Handy said that fixing signatures on rejected ballots is “the only way to get more ballots into the mix after Election Day. They have a 21-day window there to cure any kind of signature problem’’ before votes are certified.
Kevin Hamilton was one of the Seattle-based lawyers who helped Gregoire win the 2004 election challenge brought by Republican Dino Rossi, case and also lead attorney in last year’s victorious court battle in which Democrat Al Franken beat back Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman’s election challenge in a month-long trial.
Hamilton is part of the national Perkins Coie firm that handled Nevada Sen. Harry Reid’s past election recount and close races in other states.
But asked about preparations he is making for Washington’s close elections – including the seemingly close Rossi-Murray matchup – Hamilton declined to comment. He said his clients include the Democratic National Committee, Democratic National Senatorial Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and he was not authorized to talk publicly on their behalf.
But Hamilton did say: “I don’t anticipate there is going to be any trouble here. I think Patty is going to win this election. Sen. Murray is ahead and seems to be doing well.’’
The SurveyUSA poll released by KING-5 television this week showed the Senate race was in a dead heat. But the often predictive Washington Poll released Friday showed Murray was up by four to six points – still near the margin of error.
The 3rd Congressional District race pitting Democrat Denny Heck of Olympia and Republican Jaime Herrera of Camas were also considered close. And Republicans were still hoping John Koster can knock off U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen of Everett in the 2nd district and that Dick Muri can overtake U.S. Rep. Adam Smith in the 9th. Based on the August primary, numerous state legislative races also could be close.
“If all the races are clear and decisive, this election will have a quick and quiet close,” elections director Handy said. “Anywhere you have a really, really close election – whether it is on the ballot measures, the congressional races or the U.S. Senate race –the teams will move in. The first battle ground will be the ballots that have missing or mismatched signatures.”
“You want to be ready,” Esser said. “Certainly my preference is to win by a big margin and not even worry about it.’’