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Sheriff to probe voting by felons

ADAM WILSON   THE OLYMPIAN   08 February 2005

The Thurston County sheriff is investigating allegations of illegal voting in the November election, saying the effort will boost the public's confidence in the election system.
"We're kind of breaking new ground here," said Sheriff Gary Edwards. "This issue apparently has always been there, but it has never come to the forefront before. It really is a sad state of affairs."

Edwards said Monday he has assigned a detective to investigate the number of convicted felons voting illegally, but he added sorting out the confusing system controlling felons' voting rights will be a challenge.

"It's all just as clear as mud," Edwards said.

There is no single database listing which felons have completed their sentences and had their voting rights restored by the court, Edwards noted. He said that makes knowing who can vote difficult both for officials and felons.

The Building Industry Association of Washington, hoping to help Republican Dino Rossi in his legal challenge of Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire's 129-vote victory, has identified more than 50 voters who were convicted of felonies in Thurston County.

Tom McCabe, the group's executive vice president, said Monday he thought the sheriff's investigation was a good idea.

"I believe we have a law on the books, we ought to enforce it," he said. "If I speed, I get a ticket."

McCabe said his staff explained to the sheriff's department the process it used, comparing a list of voters from the Secretary of State's Office with a database of criminal records and trying to match names, addresses and dates of births.

Edwards, however, said he did not think such a matching system would hold up in a criminal case, even though he thought the building association had underestimated the number of illegal votes.

"I think that's a very weak number in the scheme of things, compared to the number that is really out there," he said. He said there are about 15,000 felons being monitored by the courts in Thurston County, and his office was able to identify 2,600 of them who had their rights restored.

Edwards said he thinks more than 50 of the 12,400 possibly ineligible felons voted in November, but many of them probably thought they had the right to do so.

"Government is asking them if they want to register, and then government is sending them an absentee ballot," Edwards said. "So whose fault is it? I've already talked to the prosecutor about this, and there is no intention of prosecuting everyone who voted and was ineligible."

Instead, Edwards said he intended to prosecute cases of obvious, intended fraud and send a message that the right to vote should be taken seriously.

"No matter what comes of the Rossi-Gregoire issue, I would like to have the election process itself get some credibility back," said Edwards, a Republican. "It's the hinge-pin of our free society, the trust in the vote."

Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman said she would like to see fraudulent voters prosecuted, but it would be a first in her experience.

"In many of the elections that I've been involved with, the canvassing board has referred voters to the sheriff's office for investigation," Wyman said. "They have turned out to be well-intentioned voters."

Wyman has noted before that auditors remove felons from the voter rolls if they are notified of a felony conviction by the court, but they also are obligated to accept the signed oath on a registration card, which states the person is eligible to vote.

Edwards said he had spoken with the sheriff in Snohomish County, but he was unaware of any other investigations into the issue of felons voting.

Edward said he expects the issue to become more important as the number of known illegal votes rises, not only in Thurston County but statewide.

"We've got a system strictly based on honesty, and granted 95 percent of people are honest," he said, "but what are we going to do with that 5 percent?"

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