Was prosecutor too partisan?
Seattle Times staff reporter
For the most part, the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office stays out of partisan politics, with one big exception: elections.
The prosecuting attorney has a seat on the three-member King County Canvassing Board, which convenes after each election to decide which ballots are eligible to be counted and to certify election returns.
Before his death in May, Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng delegated that position to Dan Satterberg, his top deputy.
Now the interim prosecutor, Republican Satterberg faces Bill Sherman, a Democrat, in the November election.
During Satterberg's eight-year tenure on the canvassing board, he helped decide the outcome of the disputed 2004 gubernatorial race and, the following year, heard Republican complaints that nearly 2,000 voters had registered improperly.
Satterberg says he and Maleng made decisions on the merits, without regard to politics. Some observers, including two Democratic elections attorneys, agree.
Sherman, a King County deputy prosecutor, contends Satterberg's record shows he routinely voted with his Republican Party.
Either way, Satterberg's tenure on the canvassing board highlights the intense political pressure on those who count the votes, and how almost every decision the board makes can be cast as partisan.
A pivotal decision
In 1865, the Washington Territorial Legislature created three-person canvassing boards composed of the chairman of each county's council, the prosecuting attorney and the auditor.
Later, in King County, the manager of the Elections Division took over from the auditor. Most often, the prosecuting attorney and the County Council chairman delegated their responsibility.
Satterberg joined the canvassing board in 1999 after another deputy prosecutor retired. Most of the job entails examining ballots to determine voter intent, not an easy task, Satterberg said, considering how many people don't follow directions.
But nothing prepared Satterberg or the King County Elections Division for the rancor of the 2004 governor's race, the closest in state history.
During the initial vote counting, with Republican state Sen. Dino Rossi clinging to a 1,920-vote lead over Democrat Christine Gregoire, the King County Elections Division -- on advice from the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office -- ruled that it would not give the Democratic Party a list of voters whose provisional ballots had been rejected because of missing or mismatched signatures.
Democrats wanted to use the list to contact voters to try to resolve the questioned signatures and count the ballots.
The issue went to King County Superior Court, and a judge ordered the names released.
At the time, Democrats wondered whether Maleng's party affiliation had influenced his attempt to withhold the information. Satterberg said it did not.
"It was not something that Norm Maleng stepped in and said we want to preserve this victory for Dino," Satterberg said.
A few weeks later, with Rossi's margin hovering around 100 votes after a recount, the canvassing board made what many consider a pivotal decision.
Canvassing-board members Dwight Pelz, a Metropolitan King County Council member, and Election Director Dean Logan outvoted Satterberg to direct election workers to reconsider 573 absentee ballots that county officials said had been erroneously disqualified.
At the time, Chris Vance, then the state Republican Party chairman, decried the move as a "party-line vote" because Pelz was a Democrat and because Logan had been appointed by Democratic County Executive Ron Sims.
Satterberg said his vote was really intended to give the canvassing board more time to consider the consequences of reviewing votes that were not previously counted.
"I felt Dwight and Dean were rushing," Satterberg said. "I'm a prosecutor. I wanted to have more evidence."
Pelz, now chairman of the state Democratic Party, said Satterberg caved to GOP pressure.
"On that day, for Dan Satterberg, it was all about politics," Pelz said.
Vance conceded that he often called Maleng and Satterberg to voice Republican concerns about the recount. Most Republican activists complained that Satterberg was not advocating strongly enough for Rossi, he said.
"We felt at the time that the whole thing was extremely partisan," said Vance. "Of course, we complained to the only people who we thought would listen to us."
But Vance added, "Nobody in the Republican Party felt that Norm Maleng and Dan Satterberg would do everything we asked of them. Maleng's office never said, 'Don't worry, Chris, we'll take care of it, we're good Republicans.' "
In the end, Gregoire won by 129 votes.
GOP challenges voters
In October 2005, just a month before Sims stood for re-election, a county Republican Party activist named Lori Sotelo challenged more than 1,900 voters, contending they had illegally registered at a post-office box or other nonresidential address.
The move was seen by Democrats as an effort to discredit Sims and stoke anger about Gregoire's tight victory.
A divided canvassing board, with Logan joined by King County Councilmember Dow Constantine against Satterberg, voted to reject most of the GOP challenges, saying that Sotelo had to prove where the voters actually lived.
Sotelo was forced to retract many of the challenges after voters proved they actually lived at the addresses listed by the county.
Satterberg said he agreed with Sotelo's argument that voters who signed papers indicating they lived at addresses that weren't their homes should be bumped off the rolls, but he faulted county Republicans for dragging the canvassing board into a political controversy.
"Obviously, that was a partisan strategy by the county Republican Party," he said. "It was an ill-considered strategy. The motivation behind that was not something I appreciated."
In both the 2004 recount and the Sotelo challenges, Satterberg sided with Republicans, and that shows bias, Sherman said.
"There is a pattern, that my opponent has consistently taken the party line," he said.
Sims reacted angrily to Maleng's decision not to charge Sotelo with perjury for making false claims about voters' addresses.
But Sims, the county's most powerful Democrat, won't endorse either Sherman or Satterberg, a testament, Satterberg said, to Maleng's good relationship with Democrats and Satterberg's commitment to continue it.
David McDonald, an attorney who represented the Democratic Party during the gubernatorial recount, said Satterberg "always functioned appropriately" on the canvassing board.
Another Democratic attorney, Will Rava, also commended Satterberg but said it's difficult to say how -- or where -- partisanship might enter into the King County Prosecutor's Office.
"I think you could at least wonder if politics were entering into the decisions, but it'll be hard to prove it," Rava said.
Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or email@example.com
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