House committee races to get Senate election reform package out over GOP objections
OLYMPIA, Wash. -- A House committee, racing to meet a Friday deadline, passed a modified version of the Senate's extensive election reform package over the objections of Republicans, some of whom stormed out of the meeting before the votes were complete.
Of the five bills passed, the most contentious were measures to enhance voter registration record-keeping, and an omnibus bill that standardizes election procedures. Both passed on 5-4 votes along party lines.
More than a dozen GOP amendments to the two main bills, including one that would require photo identification at the polls, were defeated by the Democratic majority on the House State Government, Operations & Accountability Committee.
Rep. Lynn Schindler, R-Spokane Valley, was visibly upset during the final votes.
"We came into this process thinking we would really do something," she said before the vote on the omnibus bill. "I am really disappointed in what is happening. The citizens out there expected us to reform the system. I think that by what we have done today, we have made it easier for things to happen that people will have questions about for years."
"I do think it's very unfortunate that they took out the ID," Reed said, noting that his election reform task force found that was something the public wanted. "The public generally wants to have things tightened up."
Schindler was one of two Republican lawmakers who left before the final vote on a less controversial bill to create a manual of election laws. Rep. Bob Sump, R-Republic, also walked out after withholding his vote on a previous bill.
Friday was the final day for committees to act on bills from opposite houses. To go to Gregoire's desk, the bills must pass the full House by April 15. But because of the numerous amendments made to several of the bills in the House, they must first go back to the Senate. House committee Chairwoman Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, said they could be on the floor as early as Wednesday.
"This system is based on trust, on encouraging and getting people to register and getting people to vote," said committee member Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia. "The system was not broken when we came in here and we don't need to put up excessive walls for registration and participation."
The chairman of the Senate's elections committee, Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, said he hadn't had a chance to go through all the changes, but said the removal of the identification requirement "is of serious concern."
Still, he said a compromise should be possible.
"I think we're going to have some late night sessions hammering out the details," he said. "At this point I'm not concerned we're so far apart that we can't come together."
The bills, passed by the Senate last month, are the result of a promise by Gregoire, Reed and lawmakers to tighten up the elections process in response to the contested governor's race that Gregoire won by 129 votes after a hand recount of nearly 2.9 million ballots.
Supporters of Republican opponent Dino Rossi have gone to court seeking to void the results, alleging widespread problems and voting irregularities, including illegal votes by felons and dead people.
A Senate Republican amendment introduced last month allowed election officials to check on the citizenship of each new applicant against immigration records. An amendment by Hunt removed that provision Friday.
"They think the system is broke and everybody is cheating and we don't," Hunt said after the executive session. "I don't think one close race is reason to change everything."
Several GOP amendments from the ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Toby Nixon, R-Kirkland, did pass, including one that requires the secretary of state to conduct a quarterly, instead of periodic, comparison of statewide voter registration with lists of known felons. Also accepted was a Nixon amendment that would ensure all convicted felons be informed of their loss of voting rights and the process on how they can be restored.
Nixon said all the amendments rejected Friday would be reintroduced once the bills get to a floor vote.
"People are pretty sensitive about what they perceive as the weakening of our election system," he said. "If the bills pass as they are, they can give us even less integrity in the system than we have today."
A bill requiring voting devices to have a paper trail passed 9-0 with no acrimony, and the committee also passed a bill to require out-of-state, overseas and military voters to be told of their voting rights and procedures. Another bill requiring the secretary of state to prepare a manual of election laws and rules also passed.
On Wednesday, the committee approved an amended version of a Senate bill to make it easier for counties to switch to all mail-in voting. The House amendment makes mail-in voting mandatory for counties by 2012. The Senate this week also passed out House bills on election reform, including changing the primary date to August.
Both houses need to reach a compromise if the bills are to make it into law.
"The legislators need to rise above the fray," Reed said. "Sort out what's in the interest of the people of the state of Washington and focus on that rather than seeking partisan advantage."
The voter registration record-keeping bill is Senate Bill 5743, the omnibus election reform bill is Senate Bill 5499, the paper trail bill is Senate Bill 5395, the out-of-state voters' information bill is Senate Bill 5565 and the election law manual bill is Senate Bill 5564.
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