August 22, 2011

Pulling the Plug on Satellites

Filed under: Probable Cause — Tags: , , — Bill @ 1:33 pm

Sunday’s Coeur d’Alene Press ran a story headlined Vote here, only.  The story reported that newly-inaugurated Kootenai County Clerk Cliff Hayes had decided to not provide satellite polling places for absentee, in-person voting.  For residents of Coeur d’Alene (and Canada), that means voters will no longer be able to cast an absentee in-person ballot at Coeur d’Alene City Hall.  Rather, they will have to drive for about 6 minutes over the 1.9 miles to get to the County Elections Office at 3rd and Locust.

Predictably, the usual suspects were indignant!  Councilman Mike Kennedy huffed and puffed at the August 16 Council meeting that the County Clerk was “depressing the [voter] turnout” and “removing a service that had served the citizens well for a long time. ”  According to the news/views/skews paper article, Kennedy and Coeur d’Alene City Clerk Susan Weathers said this makes it harder for people to vote.

There’s more to the story within the Press story, however. 

While making sure the cities of Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls bloviators were given ample space to express their indignation, the Press barely mentioned that on January 1, 2011, the county clerks throughout the state were mandated by law to assume full responsibility and control for nearly all local and special elections.  Before then, the covered elections were administered and conducted by the local jurisdictions.  As permitted by the pre-2011 election laws,  Coeur d’Alene had for over 20 years contracted with Kootenai County to facilitate and assist the City Clerk in carrying out her functions in connection with administering the election laws.  The fact is,  Coeur d’Alene City Clerk Susan Weathers was clueless about the municipal election law and was  incapable of performing her duties to administer the City elections.  This was revealed in her testimony during the election contest lawsuit trial.  Consequently, the Kootenai County Elections Office, a component of the County Clerk,  completely ran the City’s 2009 election.  The County was, however, still only a contractor working under contract to the City.

The Press article quoted County Clerk Hayes who explained, “The security of the ballots is paramount in the process of the elections.”

Coeur d’Alene City Clerk Susan Weathers apparently disagrees that election integrity should be paramount.  The Press article quotes her thus, “”If his [County Clerk Hayes’] goal is to create a greater voter turnout, he’s making it more difficult.”

Once again, Coeur d’Alene City Clerk Weathers demonstrates her lack of understanding of the functions of an elections administrator.  As I observed in my report titled The Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Election Contest Lawsuit 2009-2011:

Encouraging voter participation is the responsibility of individuals and civic organizations.  It is not the job of either the Secretary of State or the Kootenai County Clerk to spend taxpayer dollars to “get out the vote.”  Rather, it is their duty to ensure that those citizens who choose to lawfully register and vote are provided with the means and materials to vote lawfully and without unreasonable or unlawful impediments.

The action taken by County Clerk Hayes in closing the Coeur d’Alene City Hall satellite in-person absentee voting location was neither unreasonable nor unlawful.  His office is now fully responsible for nearly every facet of a Coeur d’Alene city election.

But what about any security issue?  Was there a legitimate security concern connected with satellite voting at city halls?  The answer may be revealed by these lines in the Press article:

City officials maintain their buildings are just as secure.

City halls, just like the elections office, are monitored by security cameras, and the ballots are sealed and held overnight under lock and key, they said.

The article does not specifically identify the “city officials,”  so we don’t know for sure what cities are involved.  The important revelation is that the second sentence seems to be saying that voted ballots (ballots marked by electors, sealed inside the absent elector ballot envelope, and placed in a sealed container) were stored onsite when the satellite office(s) closed each day.  The article’s wording implies that in Coeur d’Alene, voted ballots were out of the custody and control of the County Clerk’s office and under the custody and control of officials at Coeur d’Alene City Hall.  If that is so, that would be unnecessary and contrary to the City’s agreement with the County.

Coeur d’Alene contracted with the County rather than conducting its own elections.  If voted ballots were out of the County Clerk’s control and stored at City Hall, then it is also very likely that all of the election materials at the Coeur d’Alene City Hall satellite location were similarly stored.   Did that include including unvoted (unmarked) ballots, the ballot authentication stamp, and absentee ballot envelopes?   Because if any or all of that happened, then the question becomes, could someone with Coeur d’Alene City Hall access have breached “security”, marked ballots, inserted them in envelopes, and stuffed the ballot box?

It is very significant to note that on page 3 at paragraph 4 of the 2009 Coeur d’Alene City – Kootenai County election agreement, it states, “The City shall have no responsibility for security or protection of the County’s supplies or equipment.”  So if the City of Coeur d’Alene provided supposedly “secure” space for the overnight storage of voting materials as the Press article suggests, the City assumed responsibility for securing and protecting perhaps the most important component of the election:  voted ballots and the materials from which falsified ballots could be created.   Why would City officials assume that risk in apparent violation of its agreement with the County?  Why wouldn’t the City have simply instructed the County to secure the critical voting material at the County Elections Office 6 minutes and 1.9 miles away each night?   Why was then-County Clerk Dan English and his Elections Office Administrator Deedie Beard willing to leave that sensitive material in the City’s control and custody in apparent violation of the agreement with the City?

The Press article contained an inaccuracy.  The article stated:

“Weathers said she was told by elections staff in a side conversation at the end of the meeting that beside the financial and security reasons, having city elections inside city hall could also be a possible ‘conflict of interest.’  Weathers reported those reasons to the Coeur d’Alene City Council during its meeting Tuesday.”

While Weathers may have been told that, it was City Administrator Wendy Gabriel and not City Clerk Weathers who reported those reasons to the Coeur d’Alene City Council at its August 16th meeting.  A review of both the online minutes and the video of the meeting confirms this.

Now that county clerks have nearly complete responsibility for the cities’ elections, it is absolutely appropriate that they should be given the authority necessary to carry out their duties to the best of their abilities.   While many in Coeur d’Alene refuse to accept it, the 2009 city election contest lawsuit has revealed failures of duty by the City Clerk, the then-County Clerk, and the Idaho Secretary of State.  The lawsuit has already drawn legislators’ attention to further changes that need to be made in state election law.   Kootenai County Clerk Cliff Hayes and Elections Administrator Carrie Phillips are taking reasonable steps to ensure the integrity of Kootenai County’s elections, and they are doing it consistent with the Idaho Code.


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