Together, Secretary of State Sam Reed and King County court officials have sent a clear message that initiative fraud will not be tolerated.
It’s the right message at the right time.
Voter confidence in the state’s electoral system suffered greatly in 2004 because of the razor thin results in the gubernatorial election between Democrat Chris Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi. It took multiple ballot counts to finalize the results in what was the closest gubernatorial election in state history. Coming on top of the 2000 presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore that required intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court, voter confidence in the accuracy and independence of elections at the national and state levels was severely shaken.
Subsequent scrutiny revealed numerous problems with the way ballots were processed, in the way initiatives were circulated for voter signatures and in the general conduct of elections. To the credit of Reed, the state’s chief elections officer, lawmakers, county auditors and others, many election improvements have been achieved over the last seven or eight years. It has been an incremental process that has — we hope — restored some voter confidence in the accuracy of the electoral process.
Much of the scrutiny has been focused on signature gathering and whether the names on the petitions are real or fictitious.
A flagrant example surfaced last fall. Claudia Renea McKinney, a former member of the state home-care worker bargaining team for the Service Employee International Union, engaged in fraud to qualify Initiative 1098, the proposal for an income tax for the ballot.
By law, when initiative signatures are submitted to Reed’s office, crews check their accuracy to confirm that each initiative has received the proper number of signatures. They weed out unregistered voters and voters who signed the petition more than once, and are on the lookout for any irregularity.
Red flags were raised as the verifiers looked at the 349 signatures submitted by McKinney. Signature-checkers spotted 20 petition sheets signed on the back by McKinney that seemed questionable. Some of the signatures appeared to be in the same handwriting or came from unregistered voters. It turned out most of the signatures were fakes. Her signatures were not counted in the secretary of state’s tally of legitimate voters.
At Reed’s request, the Washington State Patrol investigated and confirmed that many of the signatures were indeed false. With Reed’s support, the patrol forwarded the case file to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s office.
It would have been easy to sweep this under the rug, but prosecutors filed charges against McKinney and pressed forward with a case of “signature violation by a signer” — an unranked felony. The crime carries with it a standard range of zero to 12 months in jail and a maximum of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Faced with the evidence against her, McKinney recently pleaded guilty in King County Superior Court before Judge Michael Spearman. He sentenced her to 160 hours of community service in lieu of 20 days of jail time. McKinney was ordered to pay restitution to the secretary of state’s office and to pay court costs. She apologized for her deceptive actions.
After the court case was settled, Reed said, “The people of Washington have used and cherished the initiative and referendum process for almost a hundred years now, and they deserve and expect a clean and trustworthy process that is free of signature fraud. The number of bad signatures was just a small percentage of the total submitted to us for checking, but it did represent an attack on the process, which relies greatly on the integrity of the people who circulate the petitions.”
We’re pleased that Reed, the State Patrol, prosecutors and the courts took this case seriously. Vigilance on the part of election workers also is key.
The McKinney case sends a strong message to voters that state officials have a zero tolerance policy for initiative fraud. That’s the right message because it demonstrates this state’s commitment to fair and accurate elections, which in turn should bolster voter confidence.