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June 25, 2022

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Group doorbells Washington homes, searching for illegal voters and drawing complaints

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CLYDE HILL — Clipboards in hand, Jenifer Short and Emily Tadlock strolled a swanky suburban neighborhood on a recent afternoon, checking homes against a list of voter registrations.

Knocking on the front door of a house with an Alfa Romeo in the driveway, they chatted with a woman, a renter who verified she was registered to vote at the address, but who said another person registered there was the homeowner, who did not live there.

After the brief chat, Short and Tadlock moved on, marking down the information on an “incident report” for the group they’re volunteering for, the Washington Voter Research Project.

“We’re detectives, OK?” said Tadlock, somewhat jokingly describing the work of checking out thousands of voter registrations flagged by the group as potentially suspicious.

Across Washington, hundreds of volunteers like Tadlock and Short have been knocking on doors, questioning residents and searching for evidence of voter fraud — or at least outdated voter rolls.

It’s an effort led by Glen Morgan, a conservative activist from Thurston County known for filing frequent campaign finance complaints against Democratic politicians, unions and other allied groups.

While Morgan seeks to distance the canvassing from outlandish and false conspiracies about the 2020 presidential election, he acknowledged his group has attracted 350 volunteers across the state in part due to the distrust in the election system stoked by former President Donald Trump.

What’s happening here is loosely connected to a national campaign by Trump supporters hunting door-to-door for proof that the 2020 election was fraudulent. The activity in some states has drawn fierce blowback and accusations of voter intimidation. Civil rights groups in Colorado filed a federal lawsuit in March, alleging canvassing by Trump supporters there has targeted neighborhoods with a high number of people of color.

In Washington, the Morgan-led doorbelling campaign has generated complaints from people put off by the inquiries, leading several county auditors, including Clark County’s Greg Kimsey, and Secretary of State Steve Hobbs to issue public statements warning that the group is not authorized by any election office.

In interviews, some county auditors said they have received reports of canvassers trying to pose as government officials.

“People called very concerned, because they were portraying themselves as county employees,” said Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall. “They had like the Thurston County logo on their clipboard.”

Hall said her office “would never go door-to-door asking voters if they voted or how long they’ve lived there, anything like that.”

From reports she’s received, Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said some residents “got the impression that two canvassers were trying to represent themselves as working for or with” her office or the Secretary of State’s Office. “We don’t do this kind of doorbelling or canvassing door-to-door,” she said. “We don’t sponsor it, we don’t endorse it, nobody is doing this under our authority.”

Michael Simonds, a Bremerton resident, recalls an encounter with one of the canvassers when he was at a friend’s house earlier this year. Simonds said the woman started out reasonable but transitioned to a rant about “illegal immigrants” and ballot signature forgery. “It kind of went off the deep end,” he said. He said the woman implied she was working with the county auditor’s office. “It seemed like a misinformation campaign, “ he said

State Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski criticized the doorbelling as invasive and “very much a voter intimidation effort that is being taken up by the GOP.”

Morgan rejects the criticisms, saying his organization is nonpartisan and is not looking to mislead or intimidate anyone. He said volunteers are trained to properly identify themselves as volunteers and not government workers. He said they also forbid taking photos or posting information on social media about homes they visit, and added that he has banned a few people who violated such rules.

Morgan called some of the comments county auditors, particularly Dalton, have made about his group “shockingly ignorant and libelous” and said some complaints seem to be triggered when volunteers visit homes of “hardcore leftists.”

The group works off voter registration lists — which are public — cross-referenced with data from the Postal Service, Social Security Administration and other sources, to find voters who have likely moved or died.

Morgan, a former employee of the Freedom Foundation, a conservative Olympia-based think tank focused on fighting public sector unions, said his effort is all volunteer and is not backed by any big money. Besides Morgan, the only other officer listed for the group in state records is Sharon Hanek, a Bonney Lake accountant who ran unsuccessfully for a Pierce County Council seat in 2018.

In a recent interview at a Bellevue coffee shop, volunteers with Morgan’s group downplayed interest in large-scale vote fraud conspiracy theories that have been lobbed by Trump and his allies in recent years. They said they’ve just seen flaws in the system and want the voter rolls to be clean.

“I don’t believe in any big conspiracies, but I think that doing this work, it might provide information that we need to look into further,” said Kim Taylor, of Seattle.

Tadlock said she grew concerned when she personally received two ballots after getting married and moving to Mercer Island. She called King County Elections, which updated her registration to fix the problem. “I think mail-in ballots are inherently fishy,” she said.

Short, an Edmonds resident, said she grew suspicious about mail-in balloting in 2020 after hearing about a volunteer accepting ballots near an Everett drop box. She said she called the county, and was told it had no volunteers doing that. “That got me thinking there are a lot of ways voter fraud occurs,” she said.

Short filed in May to run for state representative as a Republican, challenging Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, in the 21st Legislative District. She spent last week in Michigan with Washington initiative promoter Tim Eyman, who has taken his operation on the road after garnering massive fines for violating campaign laws here. Eyman is now working to qualify a Michigan “ballot integrity” initiative that would require photo identification for in-person voting and restrict mail-in balloting.

On her Facebook page, Short has promoted “2000 Mules,” the film by conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza, which asserts cellphone tracking data shows Democratic-aligned ballot “mules” in several swing states cost Trump the 2020 presidential election. The film has been widely discredited by experts for distortions about its cellphone data and failing to prove its fraud claims.

Washington state has nearly 4.8 million registered voters, a population that is constantly shifting as people die or move to new addresses without updating their registrations. Elections officials are constantly sifting through data in an effort to keep the voter rolls up to data, though Morgan argues their efforts are inadequate.

Documented cases of voter fraud are exceedingly rare, both nationally and in Washington. In the 2016 and 2018 general elections, the Secretary of State’s Office identified 216 cases of possible fraud — or about 0.003% of the 6.5 million votes cast in those elections.

Two county auditors said the bulk of questionable voter names brought to their attention by Morgan so far appear to be valid military and overseas voters, who are allowed by federal law to vote at their last registered address or at the address of a family member.

Morgan’s group gave Thurston County a list of 2,000 names, according to Hall. The office analyzed the names, and found no fraudulent voters. “Most of what they were calling suspicious was military and overseas voters,” she said.

Likewise in Clark County, “a majority of the names” on lists supplied by Morgan’s group are military and overseas voters, according to Kimsey.

Morgan’s list did identify one Clark County voter who had died in the 1980s, Kimsey said, and the auditor’s office has canceled that registration. “No ballots have been voted in that voter’s name since they were deceased,” he added.

In King County, an initial list supplied by Morgan’s group flagging hundreds of voter registration anomalies did not turn up any illegal voters, King County Elections Director Julie Wise said in an email to the group’s county coordinator on May 6.

The county looked at the list and found nearly half of the names were “inactive” voters, meaning they do not receive ballots, and will not in the future unless they update their information, Wise said in the email. In other cases, voters appeared to be legally voting from addresses where they previously lived.

Kendall Hodson, chief of staff for King County Elections, said the office has received no complaints about the canvassers and welcomes any help on keeping voter registrations up to date. “We work with a lot of different partners to keep our rolls clean. We appreciate it,” she said.

Morgan said his group will continue to do what he described as unglamorous groundwork until they’re convinced the voter rolls are clean.

“We are not stopping. We are not going away,” said Morgan. “We are not caught up in one election cycle, or any party.”

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