Builders group uses trickery to check out voters' signatures
Seattle Times chief political reporter
OLYMPIA — A "Home Ownership Survey" sent to hundreds of King County residents, along with a $10 check as an incentive for returning it, wasn't really designed, as it claimed, to help project housing trends in the Puget Sound region.
The three-question survey and the check are part of a plan by backers of former Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi to search for fraudulent votes cast in the disputed November election.
The surveys were sent to more than 400 voters whose absentee ballots were questioned after the election and who signed post-election affidavits to ensure their ballots were counted.
The Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) sent the mail in January and February in the hope that the surveys would be signed and the checks endorsed. That would give the builders group signatures to match against the affidavits, which were collected by Democratic volunteers and helped Democrat Christine Gregoire win the election.
Differing signaturesSo far the homebuilders association has received about 120 checks or surveys back, according to Tom McCabe, its executive vice president.
About 20 of those raise questions for McCabe.
Some of what he's found appears suspicious at first glance. Some signatures on voter affidavits submitted by Democrats in November do not match signatures on surveys and checks the builders group collected from the same people.
McCabe said he suspected Democratic volunteers forged signatures.
State Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt said that's untrue. He said hundreds of volunteers worked over several days to collect signatures. He said they were trained and worked in pairs.
He said what McCabe did should be against the law.
"It's very unseemly. It actually is stealing people's signatures," Berendt said. "What he's done is essentially a form of identity theft.
"Boy, those BIAW people are so devious."
A few voters contacted this week agreed and said the signatures on their affidavits were theirs.
Two said they also had signed the survey or check but purposely used a different style signature than what was on their affidavit. One woman said her husband signed the $10 check and deposited it.
Seattle voter Arthur Pasette remembered the survey and the check and didn't give either much thought.
"If someone is giving me 10 bucks ... I'm taking it," he said.
Pasette, a retired physician, used far different signatures on his voter affidavit and the check. When he signs checks, he said, he writes more legibly and spells out his first and last name. On the affidavit he used a more stylized signature, with his first initial, last name and a giant loop around it all.
Yesterday, he paused for a moment as he was moving in to his new Madison Park home and signed both his signatures again as a demonstration.
Berendt said that many volunteers who collected signatures said voters told them their signatures on the ballots didn't match the signature on file with the county because they, too, use different types of signatures depending on what they sign.
In Duvall, Christina Spears-Bartunek looked at the signatures and had a quick answer for why the signature on the check was so different from the one on the affidavit.
"My husband signed the check," she said.
She was not happy about what she thought was a deceptive survey.
"I think it's crappy," she said. "I don't think it's good at all."
Cheryl Triplett said she has a "generic signature" and an "official signature." The survey got the generic. The affidavit got the official.
She does that out of fear of identify theft, she said. She doesn't want to put anything through the mail with her official signature.
In fact, that's what got her ballot tossed initially. She used the generic signature on the absentee ballot because it was going through the mail. When it didn't match her signature on file at King County, her ballot was rejected.
She said she thought she had been tricked into giving her signature.
"I think you should be honest about it. If the Republicans would have come to my door, I would have said, 'This is my signature.'
"I just think that's an underhanded way to go about things."
The builders association is a potent political force, contributing large amounts to Republican candidates and promoting its own initiatives and referenda.
Since the election, the group has worked to find evidence Republicans could use in their lawsuit.
Lack of action criticizedThe affidavits also fueled McCabe's efforts to look for felons who voted in the election. When he received a copy of the affidavits in November, he found names of a few people who had been convicted of felonies.
That led him to a full-scale effort, using almost his entire 30-person staff at one point, to search voter rolls and court records for felon voters.
That work was turned over to Rossi's attorneys, who used it to supplement their work collecting evidence for a lawsuit asking that the election be overturned.
The felon search has been high profile and labor-intensive for the builders group. But on the housing survey and signature-matching project, McCabe toils mostly alone, and usually at night after the group's offices are nearly empty.
"I'm like the old weird uncle in the basement," McCabe joked.
Before sending the surveys, McCabe compared a few signatures from the affidavits to court records and became suspicious about what looked like mismatched signatures.
"Scientists say that you shouldn't do an experiment if you have a conclusion already. I had a conclusion. I thought they had cheated," he said.
The survey came with a cover letter that told people they had been "selected to participate in a market research study being conducted by the Building Industry Association of Washington."
"Our association is conducting this study to help estimate trends in home ownership and demographics relating to home affordability in the Puget Sound Region."
The voters were told they wouldn't be contacted again and — even if they didn't fill out the survey — "we would like you to accept the enclosed check as a thank you for your time."
McCabe said that even if there are no forged signatures, he's glad he began the effort because it led him to the wider hunt for felon voters. He remains frustrated, though, that law enforcement has not been interested in his findings.
He urged U.S. Attorney John McKay to investigate.
In January, after The Seattle Times published an investigation that found 129 felons voted in King and Pierce counties, McCabe e-mailed McKay to point out the story and ask, "Why are you not investigating?"
McKay responded that the governor's election dispute was mostly a matter for state authorities.
"Given the contest now pending in state courts, state venues continue to exist for the matters you identify, although FBI will continue to receive any information you may have in addition to matters identified in the media," McKay said in an e-mail to McCabe. "Ironically, should a federal investigation proceed in cases like this we are rarely in a position to confirm it."
Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for McKay, said a number of people have contacted the office with concerns relating to the election.
She said the office's long-standing policy is to neither confirm nor deny an investigation until charges are filed or it becomes part of the public record.
McCabe said yesterday he's not sure what his forgery investigation will turn up. But he remains suspicious.
"There are a lot of questions here that deserve an answer and deserve an investigation by someone other than Tom McCabe," McCabe said.
David Postman: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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