National Opinions

OPINION: ‘This is crackpot stuff’: Election fraud mania reaches the trenches of democracy

SEATTLE — This has been vote-counting week around the state. But the guy in charge of counting them down in Mason County says he can’t go into the vote-counting room.

“If I go in, someone would immediately accuse me of fraud,” says Paddy McGuire, Mason County’s Democratic auditor. “I have a great team down there, so I just stay up here in my office.”

So it goes in the era of election fraud mania. What started on a national level in 2020 has trickled all the way down to the trenches of democracy.

McGuire is one of three county auditors in the state who have been challenged by election fraud conspiracists for their jobs. He says auditors used to be treated like pharmacists: They were anodyne, invisible professionals.

“Now people distrust us innately,” he said.

His opponent, a local Republican named Steve Duenkel, has been endorsed by a leading gadfly on the national election fraud circuit, Douglas Frank, who claims to have found a secret algorithm used to rig elections for Democrats and against Donald Trump.

Lately Duenkel has begun contending that “mules” — runners who traffic illegal ballots like drugs — had infiltrated, of all places, the South Sound during the 2020 election.

“We think we’ve got our own mules here in Shelton,” Duenkel told a podcast last month. “You can expect to hear more about the Mason County mules.”

What point there was in trying to fix the vote in tiny Mason County — which has fewer than 1% of the state’s voters — is never mentioned.

“This is crackpot stuff of the first order,” counters McGuire.

The same sort of arguments have been playing out in tiny Pend Oreille County, population 13,000, far off in the northeast part of the state up against Idaho and Canada. There, it’s the longtime Republican auditor, Marianne Nichols, getting a MAGA challenge from a fellow Republican, Tamara Newman, who believes the election was stolen from Trump and also cites concerns about ballot-running “mules.”

Finally, the auditor of Spokane County, Vicky Dalton, is facing a campaign from a state legislator, Bob McCaslin, R- Spokane Valley. McCaslin co-hosted a nearly four-hour meeting last year in Snohomish that purported to go over all the ways that voting was rigged.

The secretary of state at the time, Kim Wyman, called on the group to either submit any material to law enforcement or stop spreading the innuendo — to “put up or shut up.” Of course they did neither.

“The point with these coordinated efforts isn’t to solve anything, it’s to cast aspersions,” says McGuire, of Mason County. “It’s part of a national effort to undermine confidence in democracy, so that they can object when they don’t get the election results they want.”

It sure is head-snapping how election deniers morph instantly into election boosters the minute the vote shifts their way.

Take GOP congressional candidate Joe Kent in Southwest Washington, who lagged behind after the first vote counts on Tuesday. He went on a podcast Wednesday hosted by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, nodding along as Bannon charged all-knowingly that the reason Washington state’s vote-counting takes a few days is “so they can get the result they want. The last thing they want to see is Joe Kent in Congress.”

(Narrator: It’s really because votes are in the mail.)

Then when Kent started surging in later counts at the end of the week, Kent hailed the process: “We took bellwether Lewis County,” he tweeted.

Likewise, state Rep. Robert Sutherland, R- Granite Falls, spent the past 18 months spreading baseless allegations of mass voter fraud. He seemed oddly certain that his own narrow first-place primary finish was 100% legit: “At this point I’m declaring VICTORY!” he wrote Thursday on Facebook.

For the vote counters, the constant derision of their work, fueled by conspiracy, has become exhausting. Some are quitting. Talking to them reminds me how public health workers were getting threats during the pandemic — “you don’t expect to be so vilified,” one told me.

“I have a hard time wrapping my head around what’s happening in this country,” McGuire said.

OK, but here’s some potentially good news: All the auditors named in this column are up for election this year. And all of them were either beating the election deniers in Tuesday’s primary, or holding them to a draw, suggesting they have a good chance of winning in November.

This includes some of the state’s Trumpiest counties. In Pend Oreille, which Trump won by 37 points, the MAGA fraud challenger is losing the primary to incumbent auditor Nichols by 48 points. (They’ll get a rematch in November.)

In the race for secretary of state, which oversees elections, it appears the two finalists will be the current officeholder, Democrat Steve Hobbs, and the Pierce County auditor, Julie Anderson, who made a point of running as a nonpartisan to keep the office independent. The conspiracy-adjacent candidates all lost — a huge win for Washington state regardless of what happens in November.

Other states aren’t so sane or lucky. Arizona’s GOP just nominated a full slate of election conspiracists, including a secretary of state candidate who attended the Jan. 6 insurrection and is a member of the Oath Keepers militia group. Washington’s top-two primary is serving us well in a time of extremism.

Still, that the job of elections referee is now inflamed with partisan zealotry down in the trenches doesn’t bode well.

“It’s supposed to be ‘professionalism, not politics,’” McGuire says. “The over-politicizing of the election system isn’t some game. It’s authoritarian. It’s deadly serious.”

Ironically the only way out, though, is more politics. More campaigning, more contributions, more voter attention paid to these obscure, vital posts. Democracy can be its own worst enemy, but the only thing that ever saves democracy is more of it.

Danny Westneat is an opinion columnist for The Seattle Times.

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