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Despite county commission rebuff, Spokane Co. GOP pushes for investigation of vote-tabulating machines

Spokane County Elections Office 2021 RW.jpg
Rebecca White, SPR News
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The Spokane County Elections Office. (FILE PHOTO)

As voters and candidates look forward to the November midterms, the Spokane County Republican Party is still thinking about 2020.

There’s no proof that anything is wrong with the way Spokane County conducts its elections. No evidence of fraud, no evidence anyone’s votes were changed. No evidence that the tally of a race and its outcome don’t match.

But Matt Hawkins thinks something is a little off.

Hawkins, the state committeeman for the Spokane County GOP, is leaning into the now-mainstream Republican view that something is fishy about the way elections are conducted. This summer, the county party started formally pushing for an investigation of the machines used to tabulate votes.

Spokane County’s top election official, Auditor Vicky Dalton, said that kind of request has been coming into her office more frequently since the 2020 election. She said the audit demands are usually predicated on assumptions, lack proof of fraud, and in many cases would be illegal to fulfill.

“We keep getting these requests for audits, but we don’t get necessarily specifics of what they mean,” Dalton said. “So it’s not like we’re going to allow a third party to come in here and start pawing through records, and handling ballots, and accessing equipment. Because that’s a violation of Washington state law.”

The case Hawkins and some third-party election skeptics are presenting in Spokane County is similar to others being pushed by Republican activists, party leaders and candidates across the country this year. The supporting evidence in the Spokane petition includes links to presentations made by election conspiracy theorists. Some of its language mirrors petitions that have been filed in other states. And it relies in part on premises about voting security that have been addressed by election officials since 2020.

One of the people who signed the petition calling for a probe was Bob McCaslin, a former state lawmaker who is currently running against Vicky Dalton for county auditor.

Hawkins downplays the partisan angle of the election fraud myth. He said it doesn’t matter that Donald Trump carried Spokane County in 2020; it doesn’t matter that all the local elected Republicans won their respective races. He said he wants more proof to put his concerns to rest.

“So the only way, again, to validate anything we’re talking about here is, we need to have an independent third party come in, open up the equipment, and either validate that the Secretary of State and the auditor, what they’ve been saying is correct, or validate that what the outside community is saying is correct,” Hawkins said.

Documents Hawkins provided to Spokane Public Radio revolve around two major concerns: that voter rolls are inaccurate, and that voting trends in 2020 were somehow suspicious.

The first report presents findings from a group of election skeptics that recently canvassed some Spokane County households. The group is affiliated with the Washington Voter Research Project, an effort headed by conservative activist Glen Morgan. Their summary says the county’s voter rolls include some people who don’t currently reside in the county.

“We do have people that live outside the area that are voting in Spokane, that are not legitimate voters,” Hawkins said.

Dalton says the canvassing group likely flagged voters as anomalous when they aren’t. That may include people in the military, college students who still use their hometown address, and even more specialized examples.

“We have missionaries that have been in Indonesia for, like, thirty years,” she said. “They are American citizens. They have the right to vote. But in order to identify what races they can vote on, they have to have an address. And so they will use an address that they haven’t lived at in thirty years, that may have had two or three or four owners since then. So of course, they don’t reside in that house, but that’s their connection point to Spokane, so that they can vote.”

The second document, called a “data analysis,” uses some information about votes cast in Spokane County. Its principal finding is that Democratic voters tend to submit their ballots early, and Republican voters tend to turn theirs in closer to Election Day. Without explaining their reasoning, the report’s author – who is not identified -- called that pattern unlikely, implying that it was suspicious. But Dalton says it’s what always happens in an election.

“What’s really cool is, we finally have empirical data that proves what we’ve known for decades. This is the trend in the Spokane area,” she said. “This is nothing new. This is nothing scary. This is nothing unusual. This is the pattern for this part of the state, not just Spokane, but this whole area.”

Dalton says she plans to ask the Spokane County GOP and its partners for the data they used to reach their conclusions, and a detailed methodology.

“We’ve not been provided the data. So we have nothing to check. We have nothing to verify the stories that they have put into this report, or even the numbers that are in this report. So there’s no way to verify any of the assumptions,” she said.

Questioning the accuracy of election processes and outcomes isn’t unprecedented in American history, said Cornell Clayton, director of the Foley Institute for Public Policy at Washington State University. He pointed to the razor-thin margins of the 1960 presidential race, which Republican Richard Nixon chose not to contest, and the confusion surrounding Florida in the 2000 presidential vote, which Democrat Al Gore did challenge.

What is unprecedented, Clayton said, is the degree to which one of the nation’s two major parties has embraced the premise that elections are or could be inherently suspect.

“In the past, there’s always been these rumors and conspiracy theories among base voters, but the leadership of the party would try to put those to rest,” Clayton said. “And that has not happened in this election. In fact, the conspiracy theories have come from the top down. And I think that’s what’s particularly dangerous at this time; when you have one of your major parties that is questioning the legitimacy of the democracy. Of our votes.”

Hawkins and and a handful of election skeptics presented their petition asking for a probe to the Spokane County Board of Commissioners in mid-June. Attorney Mark McClain, who represents the commissioners, told Hawkins the kind of review he’s asking for is not within the county’s power to order. It would have to come from the Washington Secretary of State’s office.

Hawkins disagrees. He says state election officials would only sideline his request with delays. But he also hasn’t asked. He still hopes to get Spokane County to order the investigation, which is unlikely.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.