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Friday, January 07, 2005 - Page updated at 07:44 A.M.

Voting by dead people isn't always a scam

Seattle Times staff reporters

Days after his wife of four decades died of liver cancer, Robert Holmgren came home to find her absentee ballot. He filled in Charlette Holmgren's intended votes for Dino Rossi and George W. Bush, forged her signature, and mailed her ballot along with his.

"I know by the law it wasn't right, but it felt right in my heart," he said. "I wasn't trying to defraud anybody. I was just going with my wife's last wishes."

In six of the state's largest counties, at least 24 dead people were credited with voting in the November election. Some of those can be explained as clerical errors — a voter mistakenly signing the wrong line in a poll book, for instance — and others are cases in which people inadvertently voted in their relatives' names but not in their own.

But three of the cases, including Holmgren's, warrant referral for felony prosecution, elections officials said last night, and several others require further investigation.

Allegations of dead-voter fraud have reverberated on the Internet and talk radio. And the state Republican Party intends to cite dead voters in its expected challenge of the closest gubernatorial election in state history, one in which Democrat Christine Gregoire beat Republican Rossi by 129 votes.

But despite the handful of suspicious cases in which dead people were credited with voting, in at least half of the two dozen cases there is no evidence that extra votes were cast in dead people's names, according to a Seattle Times analysis reviewed by county officials. The clerical errors and surviving relatives' slip-ups mean the wrong person — but not an additional person — was credited with voting.

All but two of the dead voters were in King County. Pierce County did not provide voter history despite numerous requests for the records. One dead voter was from Clark County in southwest Washington, and one was from Spokane County. Of the 24, 14 were credited with voting absentee and 10 with voting at the polls.

Comparing records


The Seattle Times found "dead voters" by comparing death records to voter records in King, Snohomish, Kitsap, Clark, Spokane and Yakima counties. Pierce County did not provide data despite repeated requests.

The comparisons were done by computer, matching full names and dates of birth. In King County, The Times found 22 dead people given credit for voting. However, most of those votes were mistakes made either when someone at the polls signed on the wrong line or when a relative with the same name inadvertently voted using the wrong absentee ballot.

The comparisons turned up one dead voter each in Clark and Spokane counties but none at all in Yakima, Kitsap or Snohomish counties.

Secretary of State Sam Reed said he would "prosecute to the hilt" any valid case of fraudulent votes cast by the dead. But he said he was relieved that there appeared to be few such cases and said the enormity of this year's voter registration and turnout may explain some of the clerical mistakes.

At the request of The Seattle Times, King County elections manager Bill Huennekens opened poll books and voting records to reporters, examining 22 instances where the dead were credited with voting.

Chris Vance, state Republican chairman, said the party has researched votes credited to dead people and believes fraud is a serious problem. "People pass away, then other people vote their ballot," he said. "There's not hundreds [of ballots], but it happens, and in a close election it matters."

Removing names

The slow and cumbersome process of removing the deceased from voter rolls opens a window for mistakes.

Florence Kinnune, whose 71-year-old husband, Charles, died in September, said she wrote the word "deceased" on his absentee ballot envelope and returned it to the county. He was credited with voting.

In some cases, election workers simply scanned the wrong line in poll books. In Clark County, Angie Johnsen, who died in 1997, was credited for a vote cast by Daryl Johnson, whose name is listed below hers, according to county auditor Greg Kimsey.

In King County, Brandon Jones lives in the home of his late grandfather, Donald Jones, and he voted this year at the polls. But a poll worker scanned the wrong line of the poll book, giving Donald, not Brandon, credit for voting.

In other cases, people cast ballots in the name of dead relatives. Maxine A. Zemko of Seattle said she has been voting under the name of Maxine M. Zemko — her mother — since her mother's death in 1983.

That year, according to the younger Zemko, King County elections workers mistakenly erased her from the voter rolls instead of her deceased mother. As an additional complication, Maxine A. Zemko bought her mother's house, so both Maxine Zemkos shared an address. And as her mother would have, Maxine A. Zemko said, she voted for Christine Gregoire.

"Nobody has ever questioned me," said Maxine A. Zemko. "That's part of why I kept doing it, because I wondered how long it would take for them to figure it out. I guess I should fix it."

Usually not a scheme

Nationally, there is rich lore about dead voters, said election reform expert Doug Chapin, citing an old joke from Boston about voters wanting to be buried in specific city boroughs to have their voting rights live on.

But voting by the dead usually indicates simple error and not a widespread scheme, he said. "The reality may not match the lore," said Chapin, director of the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project.

County elections offices are supposed to receive quarterly updates of death certificates from the state Department of Health to purge dead voters' names from their rolls. But there is usually a six-month delay in processing data. That meant a May update didn't include any 2004 deaths, and a November update came the day before the election — too late to purge the dead.

There is another problem: Counties aren't notified of all deaths in the state, so sometimes a voter's death notice goes to the wrong county.

Under a federal law passed after the 2000 presidential election, the secretary of state is compiling a statewide voter-registration database that may ease the confusion.

It is possible for the votes to be legitimately credited to the dead. Pamela Floyd, the state's deputy elections manager, said an absentee ballot cast by a person who then dies before Election Day counts. "The day they cast their ballot is Election Day for them," she said, citing court rulings.

In whose hand?

Anne Witte's absentee-ballot envelope from the November election is signed in what looks like her elegant script, with a flowing W and looped T's.

But Witte, a longtime Republican activist from Sammamish, could not have penned the signature. She died in February.

Vernon Witte, her husband, said he never saw the ballot and thinks it might have been stolen from his mailbox.

According to the election office, Anne Witte's ballot was postmarked Oct. 28. The signature on the ballot envelope, shown to The Times, closely matched that on Anne Witte's voter-registration card.

Dean Logan, head of King County elections, said the matched signatures made him question the authenticity of Anne Witte's original card. "I want to do more research," he said.

Other ballots also defy easy explanation. Marcia Pettersen, 54, the daughter of Joan MacDonald, said she had been picking up the mail for her mother since the 81-year-old woman died last August. MacDonald was credited with voting by absentee.

"I never saw an absentee ballot," Pettersen said. "I have no idea how this could have happened."

Viola Fey, whose 80-year-old husband, John, died in May, said she recalls throwing his ballot into the trash.

"They came on the same day. I sent mine in and threw his out," she said.

Reed said the super-heated election year may have derailed purges of dead voters. In addition to dealing with a new primary-voting model, counties struggled with record numbers of voter registrations and ballots.

Some voters, he said, may have taken advantage. "The emotion over this presidential race exceeded any other race I've seen. People felt like it was a holy crusade, either anti-Bush or pro-Bush. When people get that emotional, and temptation is in front of them, well ... "

Seattle Times reporters Justin Mayo, Christine Willmsen, Mike Carter and Cheryl Phillips contributed to this report.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

David Heath: 206-464-2136 or dheath@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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