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County investigates possible voter fraud

Ballots from two recent elections will get another look. But not by vote counters.

Island County Auditor Suzanne Sinclair recently turned over 400 ballots from last year’s general election and February’s special elections to law enforcement officials for investigation.

Sinclair, Island County Prosecuting Attorney Greg Banks and Sheriff Mike Hawley met with Coupeville Marshal Lenny Marlborough and Oak Harbor Chief of Police Steve Almon to discuss a strategy to investigate possible voter fraud cases resulting from the countywide November 2005 general election, the February special elections in Coupeville and Oak Harbor, as well as future elections.

Langley Police Chief Bob Herzberg was unable to attend, but met with Hawley, Almon and Banks earlier, after Banks referred the cases on March 31 to local law enforcement.

Trouble with verifying signatures is not a new or even unusual, but the number of ballots discounted due to the problem was higher than in recent years, Sinclair said.

“This time it were really quite a few,” she said.

“We had fewer mismatched signatures in the past.”

She said mismatched signatures are usually one of the top three reasons for votes not being counted. A late postage date or no signature at all are other common problems.

Whenever elections personnel find a signature on a ballot that does not match the signature on the voter registration, a letter is sent to the voter asking the voter to resolve the discrepancy.

Usually, the mismatch is because the voter’s signature has changed over time.

“Everyone’s handwriting matures,” Sinclair said. “The law requires the voter to identify themselves and update their signature in order for their ballot to be counted,” she said.

“If the voter does not help us resolve the issue, we not only cannot count their ballot, but the law requires me to forward the names of these voters to the prosecuting attorney for investigation of possible criminal activity. There is no longer any discretion about this on our part, the law is very clear.”

Some voters may not respond because they feel that their ballot will not change the election result, Sinclair said.

In fact, the two election had no major issues in which the uncounted votes would have turned over the race.

Sinclair said the votes were never opened, but even if all 400 people would have voted the same way it would have been unlikely that those ballots would have changed election results.

However, a mismatched signature that is unresolved will still trigger an investigation by law enforcement.

One of the people whose signature is being investigated is Art Bouthillier, political cartoonist for The Record.

He said he was upset about the handling of the signature issue. The auditor’s letter arrived just days after the election.

A ballot with a mismatched signature can still be qualified and counted up to the day before certification of the election results if the voter responds to the auditor’s letter promptly, Sinclair said.

But Bouthillier never got the chance to verify his signature before the election was final.

“It was too late,” Bouthillier said. “Island County threw away my vote.”

He said he could have verified his signature if he had been notified in time, he added.

“It really makes me mad that Island County has the power to take away my vote,” Bouthillier said.

In addition, Bouthillier questioned whether county employees who review signatures are trained adequately.

In Bouthillier’s case he had only changed the style of his last name over time. He still signs his first name the same.

Sinclair said the elections staff who check the signatures have received training for this task from the Washington State Patrol.

Island County has always followed up on incidents that were deemed potentially fraudulent.

But in 2005, the Washington State Legislature enacted law that requires investigation of any unresolved mismatched signature on a returned mail ballot, Sinclair said.

It is important to know that people that are being contacted are not suspects, she said.

Criminal intent is not common in these kind of cases. But the law requires that law enforcement investigate and assess the cases for possible criminal charges.

Banks said it’s important to emphasize that the registered voters contacted by authorities are not suspected of voter fraud.

“The investigations will focus on whether someone else illegally voted the registered voter’s ballot,” Banks said.

Hawley said as it may be a hassle at the time, but taking care of the issue helps in the future.

“We fully appreciate the importance of the integrity of the voting process,” Hawley said. “But we need the voting public to help us avoid needless and expensive investigations by responding to the auditor’s letter.”

Voter fraud is a class C felony, and can carry a sentence of up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, Banks said.

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