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Widespread vote fraud is rare, a KING 5 investigation found, but one-time violators face unequal justice.
SEATTLE — As the voting season ends, some elections offices are turning their attention to the handful of suspicious ballots that were cast. Some cases may be referred to police or prosecutors for further investigation.
For Dennis Herron, of Lewis County, that process resulted in a felony conviction in 2021.
The 79-year-old returned from burying his wife Carolyn, who died from cancer, and cast her ballot in the 2020 presidential election. When questioned by a sheriff’s deputy, he admitted he filled out the ballot and forged her signature.
“When you lose somebody you lived with your whole life, you don’t always make the right choices,” Herron told KING 5 News on the porch of his homestead in the town of Randle.
While Herron didn’t serve any jail time, he is now a felon and has lost certain rights.
Herron might not have paid such a stiff price if he lived in a different part of the state, according to data analyzed by the KING 5 Investigators.
There have been 42 voter-related criminal cases filed in Washington state since 2007, according to a database complied at KING 5’s request by the Administrative Office of the Washington State Courts, which maintains records of most court systems in the state.
Per capita, the county with the most cases filed in Washington state is Lewis, which has charged eight voter fraud cases — at least three of the cases were dismissed. Lewis County is about 20 miles south of Olympia.
Elected prosecutor Jonathan Meyer defended the prosecutions, especially when the conduct is clearly “intentional” as in Herron’s case.
“It drives home to the community that we are not going to tolerate that kind of activity in our county,” Meyer said.
In King County, elected prosecutor Dan Satterberg has taken the opposite approach.
King, a county with more than 1.3 million voters, has only charged nine vote-related cases in the last 15 years.
“It’s really, to me, overkill, to put these in front of a judge to use criminal justice resources,” Satterberg said of most of the vote-fraud cases his office sees.
If a vote-fraud case appears to be isolated, Satterberg’s office typically sends a warning letter in lieu of prosecution. For example, in the November 2020 presidential election, King County Elections workers forwarded to prosecutors 22 suspicious ballots that were cast on behalf of people who died before ballots were sent to voters. The warning letters, sent to the same mailing address where the deceased voter lived, said “records show the voter was deceased prior to the date the ballot was issued by the county, indicating that someone forged the voter’s signature.” The letter warned that “intentional violation of these laws is a crime.”
The letters for the November 2020 election were mailed just last month. Satterberg could not explain the lengthy delay.
In all counties we checked, the elections offices canceled the voter registrations of the voters that were confirmed deceased. None of the fraudulent votes were added to the election results.
KING 5 visited some of the 22 homes where the warning letters were sent. At least one widow claimed that her deceased husband had voted and signed his ballot, as he was on his deathbed.
“He scribbled on it. He didn’t have his exact signature,” said Cindi Khalsa.
Her husband, Sada Simran Khalsa, died of COVID-19 on Oct. 1, 2020. She said his ballot signature probably didn’t match the signature on record at the elections office because he was so sick.
When informed that county elections records indicated that ballots were not placed in the mail until Oct. 14, two weeks after her husband died in the hospital, Khalsa backtracked.
“They’re claiming the ballots weren’t out?” Khalsa asked as she realized the evidence against her. “I don’t know. I know that I had him sign something.”
In follow-up emails to KING 5, Khalsa confessed she did fill out her husband’s ballot. Khalsa said she was under stress.
“It wasn’t until yesterday that you told me that I realized I had caused voter fraud,” said Khalsa.
Khalsa is fortunate that she is in King County, where the prosecutor’s warning letter said “the Prosecutor’s Office does not intend to take any further action in this matter.”
In Lewis County, Herron did not have such luck.
Satterberg said he made the decision in 2007 to switch to warning letters instead of prosecution after watching sympathetic victims, like an elderly widow, hauled into court.
“In my office, I’ve got 235 murder cases to get to a jury. Do I want to charge somebody for voting for their dead spouse? And put that right alongside those other cases and try to get it into court,” Satterberg asked.
“In Lewis County, if we see a law violation, we will charge it. I think that’s the reputation we have,” said Meyer.
The Lewis County prosecutor said his decisions are not related to the current political climate.
“We don’t let what’s going on in the media try to influence what we do,” Meyer said.
It’s not just vote-related cases either. For example, his office will file charges for “driving while license suspended,” a charge that some other jurisdictions have ignored because of the impact on poor citizens.
Most of the 42 cases in the state courts database involve isolated vote fraud: a person who lives and votes in two states; someone who received another person’s ballot and voted with it; a thief who stole mail including ballots.
However, there is one Washington case in which several people were charged in an organized fraud effort.
In 2007, five people were convicted in King County court for forging names in a voter registration drive. They were paid signature gatherers hired by an organization called ACORN.
“But they sat in a hotel room, drank beer, got a phonebook, opened it up and started filling out their voter registration forms with names that they found in the phonebook,” said Satterberg.
He pointed out that elections workers caught the fraud and forwarded the evidence to the prosecutor’s office, and the defendants had no political motivation. They simply wanted more signatures to make more money.
Satterberg said there’s a bright line between an isolated vote fraud case and those that are organized or widespread attempts to sway elections. He said organized fraudsters will end up in jail, just as the ACORN defendants did.
There is one area where both prosecutors are in total agreement. Widespread voter fraud is rare, and both believe that their counties do excellent work preserving the sanctity of the vote.
“You’re always going to have some instances of voter fraud, but I think those are few and far between when you look at the number of ballots that are cast,” said Meyer.
“The big story is there is zero evidence of any widespread voter fraud,” said Satterberg.