Newspaper Finds Felons Voted Illegally in Washington Election

By: (AP) At least 129 people who had been convicted of felonies voted illegally in the Nov. 2 general election in Washington state's King and Pierce counties, The Seattle Times reported Sunday.

The counties failed to flag or remove felons from the voter rolls as required by state law, or allowed them to register without checking their status, the newspaper said. In some cases, absentee ballots arrived in the mail and the felons returned them without being challenged.

Removing those illegal votes would not change the record-close contest for governor, which was decided by 129 votes after three counts, the newspaper said. Some criminals voted for Democrat Christine Gregoire while others chose Republican Dino Rossi.

The newspaper investigated felony convictions as far back as 1997, compared them with voter records, matched names and birth dates, and checked results with county officials. The report said another 23 people likely voted illegally.

"I didn't know I was supposed to not vote," Perry Madsen, 39, of Kent, told The Times. He said he had no problem registering to vote in 2002, after serving 3 1/2 years in prison for violating a protective order by repeatedly calling and writing letters to an ex-girlfriend.

State law prohibits felons from voting in prison and afterward until they have met all obligations such as community service and payment of restitution and fines. The Department of Corrections may issue a certificate restoring their voting rights. If they meet all conditions later, they must petition the court for the certificate.

Secretary of State Sam Reed said he didn't fault the counties but acknowledged gaps in the system.

"The law could be improved and the execution could be improved," he said. "One of our goals is to learn from this election. There are certain weaknesses or inconsistencies in the system, and this is one of them."

King and Pierce county election officials say they rely on people to be honest when registering or voting, instead of screening rigorously. They say voter-registration procedures are designed to make it easy for people to vote.

"I don't think it's the responsibility of the election administrators to essentially do background checks on registered voters," said Dean Logan, director of elections in King County.

Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy said that wouldn't even be possible. "We don't have the capacity to do that, and that's true of every county in the state," she said. But she acknowledged, "The way it works now is not as good as it can be or should be."

Here's how the system should operate: When a person is convicted of a felony, the county clerk notifies election officials in that county and the person's home county. Then they remove the felon from the voter rolls.

But names don't always match. Courts and election officials don't use a common identifier, so it's a kind of guessing game as officials look for matches, the Times reported. The process gets especially tricky for people with common names, or when family members with similar names live at the same address.

There's no statewide list of convicted felons that is given to counties. If a criminal is convicted in one county but votes elsewhere, the county where he or she votes might not know about the crime.

State officials say they are creating a statewide database that could be used beginning next year to help counties with more thorough searches.

Both King and Pierce officials said they would investigate cases uncovered by the newspaper probe.

The newspaper said some felons may not know about their voting status. There's no mention of voting rights in sentencing agreements signed in King County cases that were reviewed in the investigation, the Times said.

Shahn Divorne, owner of Ear-Tec Hearing Aid Specialists, said his judgment and sentencing information did not state that he lost the right to vote. He still owes $132,000 in restitution after serving 2 1/2 years in prison for defrauding the state's Department of Labor and Industries.

Divorne's absentee-ballot vote for Rossi was recorded because officials had never purged him from their rolls.

"Most of your felons are so uneducated they don't know what their rights are, they just worry about reporting to a probation officer," he said.


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