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Originally published Thursday, December 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Protect your right to vote

Recently, something very troubling has been going on in America: There has been a resurgence of reprehensible efforts to harass legitimate...

Special to The Times

Recently, something very troubling has been going on in America: There has been a resurgence of reprehensible efforts to harass legitimate voters and suppress turnout, an effort that is ultimately intended to weaken the protections that were enshrined in our nation's laws as an outgrowth of the civil-rights movement.

Now that effort is making headway in Washington state. There is still time to stop it, though the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

Before the 2000 election, Florida Secretary of State (and Bush campaign official) Katherine Harris quietly purged thousands of legitimate, mostly minority voters from the rolls (in 2004, an identical effort was abandoned after local media exposed it). In Ohio last year, the Republican secretary of state (also a Bush campaign official) attempted to void thousands of new registrations because — I'm not making this up — they were submitted on the wrong thickness of paper. Recently, political appointees in the Bush Justice Department overrode the unanimous recommendations of career civil-rights attorneys in allowing a Tom DeLay-led partisan redistricting in Texas that diluted minority voting strength.

There is a pattern here. Also in Ohio, just before the 2004 election, the Republican Party issued mass registration challenges of tens of thousands of voters. Nine hundred seventy-six of those challenges in one county were rejected when it became apparent that the challenger had no personal knowledge of the registrations she was questioning, even though she had signed an oath claiming that she did. When testimony showed that some of her challenges were clearly false, she pleaded her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and all of the challenges were rejected.

Sound familiar? It should, because Republicans have now imported these reprehensible and disruptive mass-challenge tactics into Washington state. Our local Katherine Harris, a previously obscure Republican Party apparatchik named Lori Sotelo, challenged the registrations of nearly 2,000 King County voters on the eve of the 2005 election.

Just as in Ohio, Sotelo signed an oath "under penalty of perjury" that she had "personal knowledge" that the challenged voters were incorrectly registered at mail-drop facilities and the like. She clearly intended to insinuate that the voting rolls in Democratic-leaning King County are corrupt, and that vote fraud here is rampant — she made no such challenges in Republican-dominated counties where officials implement the exact same policies.

In at least 178 cases, Sotelo was flat-out wrong; laughably, she swore that every resident of a Belltown apartment building didn't actually live in the building.

Under press questioning, Republicans reluctantly admitted they did not have any evidence that the people on their list were engaging in vote fraud. At best, they had discovered a group of citizens who, either out of a lack of knowledge of the technical requirements of elections law or because of unusual personal circumstances, had made an innocent error on their registration forms.

That happens, and there are established ways to correct those registrations without taking away the registrant's right to vote. Despite repeated entreaties from King County officials, the Republicans rejected those routes. What the Republicans chose instead was to abuse the challenge process. By issuing their mass challenge so close to an election, they violated both the letter and the spirit of the challenge law, which exists to ferret out those rare, individual instances when some unscrupulous individual is trying to engage in outright vote fraud.

In the short term, the Republican challenge plan backfired. Most of the challenges of those brave enough to vote despite the Republican intimidation were ultimately rejected. And yet, local Republican officials are still claiming the challenge effort was a success — they are even hinting that there may be more to come in the future. They are now citing the rejected King County challenges in calling on state and local officials — all Republicans, by the way — to reinterpret or change existing election law in a way that will eviscerate the high bar of proof currently required to challenge a citizen's right to vote.

Those high standards, including the rule that requires a challenger to provide the actual address of residence of the challenged voter, exist for a reason. Remember, we have a sordid history in this country of some groups and parties using tactics such as mass challenges to disenfranchise other groups who disagree with them.

What recent developments in King County tell us is that the dark legacy of poll taxes and "literacy tests" is not as much a thing of the past as we would like to believe. Unfortunately, there is still an immediate need to protect voters from those seeking new methods to disenfranchise them for partisan advantage.

We need election-law reform, but that must mean strengthening our current protections rather than weakening them, as Republicans are proposing. What we need is strong, loophole-free legislation in Olympia that will bar, once and for all, the sort of mass-challenge abuses we just experienced here in King County.

Ron Sims is the King County executive.

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