OLYMPIA, Nov. 4.—You had to figure someone would make a wild charge on the last weekend of this year’s campaign – but the one Jay Inslee came up with in the final hours left even experienced campaign observers gasping for breath. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate is accusing the Republicans of a “deceptive and sneaky” scheme to commit voter fraud by going door-to-door to collect mail-in ballots. That’s what he said, at rallies up and down Western Washington this weekend.
What’s nutty about the charge is the fact that Democratic campaigns did exactly the same thing in 2010 – and for all anyone knows, might have been planning on doing it again this year until Inslee made an issue of it Saturday.
Republicans basically stepped up the ante this year with a somewhat more systematic ballot-chasing program than Democratic campaigns used in 2010. Instead of hitting households one by one, the Republicans are sending paid canvassers into neighborhoods with high concentrations of GOP voters – East King County, for instance. They’re targeting homes where where voter-ID efforts have identified supporters, but where the ballots have not yet been turned in, according to county elections records. Canvassers ring the bell and offer to deliver the ballots themselves, no muss, no fuss – and if voters haven’t filled them out yet, that’s O.K., they’ll wait.
As canvassers fan out in every direction, the Republicans have been parking their 10 “Victory Vans” at central locations, serving as a base camp – and offering a place where residents might drop off ballots themselves.
Democrats say they are shocked that Republicans would do such a thing and are accusing the GOP of a vague plan of voter fraud. It is not clear what Republicans would have to gain by interfering with delivery of ballots that presumably favor Republicans in the first place. But other Democrats are taking the same line. A letter Friday from the state Democratic Party demands that state elections officials take action. King County executive Dow Constantine held a news conference Sunday morning in which he warned that voters should never give ballots to strangers. And a fund-raising letter from Inslee campaign manager Joby Shimomura called the practice “unprecedented, questionable, aggressive and above all, desperate. The opportunity for fraud is obvious.”
Unprecedented? Republican party officials say they got the idea from the Democrats. They’re not making it up. This reporter can say it with certainty because he is among the voters who were contacted by the Democratic ballot-chasing drive in 2010.
Stupid or Smart?
Inslee’s weekend attack left observers wondering if there was a clever plan at work – or whether it was just one of the dumbest attacks of all time. By denouncing the GOP effort and making a big show of it, Inslee essentially took an arrow out of the Democratic quiver and snapped it across his knee.
Speculation ran thick all weekend. Was Inslee trying to scare voters from handing ballots to Republican campaign workers? Was he looking for an argument to motivate Democrats at the grass-roots level? Was he trying to lay the groundwork for a charge of election fraud that could be employed if the election is close – as it very well may be?
Or was it a case where an uninformed candidate painted his party into a corner? Twice during this year’s campaign Inslee brought color to the faces of Democratic legislative leaders, when he denounced a school-financing plan that many in his own party favor, and when he said nothing had been done to implement lean-management techniques – even though Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire has made lean one of her top priorities.
Whatever the reason, Inslee made the Republican tactic a centerpiece of his election-eve speeches to the party faithful. At Thurston County Democratic headquarters Saturday afternoon, one of several weekend stops, Inslee told a crowd of 200 volunteers that the Democrats are “a party [that] believes all the votes ought to be counted and everybody should be able to vote, and I think this is important right now. Let me tell you why.
“We have found out that the Republican Party has hired people to go out there and take possession, into their orange-colored vans, votes, and goodness knows what’s going to happen to them after that happens. We believe ballots are a precious thing, and we Democrats, we have got to make sure that we get out there and make sure that we encourage people to give them to the [county] auditors and the secretary of state, where they belong, not the Republican Party.”
Charge Flabbergasts Republicans
Republicans say they are flabbergasted by the charges. “Are you kidding me?” asked state Republican chairman Kirby Wilbur. “What about what they did in 2010?”
Republicans say the Dems showed up at the King County elections office two years ago with huge stacks of ballots they had collected from supporters that season. Said King County Chairwoman Lori Sotelo, “When I called [elections supervisor] Sherill Huff to tell her what we were doing, she said, can you give us a little warning when you’re going to bring them in, so it wasn’t like what they did to her in 2010? I mean, they showed up with truckfuls and vanfuls of ballots. If they are so horrified and outraged by what is happening, maybe they shouldn’t be doing it themselves.”
Washington State Wire Was Contacted
You don’t have to take party officials’ word for it. Washington State Wire can’t speak to what happened in King County, but this reporter was among those who were contacted by Democrats two years ago. As a matter of policy, this reporter makes sure that his name appears on both Democratic and Republican mailing lists, offers appropriate answers during voter-ID polls, and waits until the very last second to turn in his ballot — so as to receive every single political mailing and robocall to which he is entitled.
As he worked at home on election day 2010, this reporter got a call from the campaign of Democratic congressional candidate Denny Heck. Who was he voting for? Had he popped that ballot in the mail yet? And might the campaign send someone by to pick it up? No thanks, he said; he’d get to it. But later in the afternoon a young woman covered in Heck-for-Congress stickers rang his doorbell and repeated the offer. Again this reporter said no – the whole thing seemed a little creepy – but the visit did remind him to fill out his ballot and slip it into the mailbox in time to get it postmarked.
Heck supporters acknowledge they did a little of that in 2010 – mainly for voters who lived way out of town. Yet this reporter lives four blocks from the Olympia Post Office.
Dems Disclaim Credit
Going door to door might be the best get-out-the-vote idea either party has had in years – perfectly adapted for the new era of by-mail voting. A record 3.9 million ballots were mailed to Washington voters this year in the state’s first entirely vote-by-mail presidential election. It used to be that parties would staff enormous phone banks on election day to remind people to go to the polls, and volunteers would shuttle the elderly to polling places. And way back in the golden age, election-day tactics involved turkey giveaways, free beer and plain old cash payments. But those old approaches just don’t work in an age when no one needs to go to the voting booth.
Now the real challenge is to get people to fill out those ballots and mail them back. That’s the beauty of going door to door, Sotelo says. People are being asked directly for their votes. Even if voters object to the offer of hand-delivery, as Washington State Wire did in 2010, a visit from canvassers often reminds voters to mail the ballots themselves. Sotelo says Democrats had an outstanding idea. “If we didn’t do it, we wouldn’t be doing our job,” she said.
Yet for some reason the Dems aren’t taking a bow. After Inslee made his fuss, state Democratic Party attorney Kevin Hamilton wrote to secretary of state Sam Reed: “This initiative is as ill-considered as it is unprecedented,” he asserted. “There is a reason why non-partisan election officials conduct our elections and the prospect of having partisan operatives collect voted ballots and return them to the elections office is chilling indeed.”