An investigation by the King County Sheriff’s Office into a ballot box surveillance effort organized by conservative activists ended without criminal charges.
However, the case remains technically open and the findings of the voter intimidation investigation have been shared with the FBI, according to the sheriff’s office.
A copy of surveywhich the Northwest News Network and the Seattle Times obtained via a public records request, said the decision to end the active investigation followed an Aug. 17 meeting between the sheriff’s office, the district attorney’s office King County and King County Elections.
“It was concluded that further investigation was not required at this time, but the matter may be reopened if similar behavior is found in the next election,” Detective Keith Gaffin wrote in his report.
Gaffin also wrote that a copy of his report was shared with an FBI special agent “to help determine if the FBI would pursue this matter.”
In an email, Seattle FBI spokesman Steve Bernd said his agency does not generally confirm or deny that an investigation exists.
“Please keep in mind that a review of the allegations does not necessarily result in the initiation of an investigation,” Bernd wrote.
Similarly, the Washington attorney general’s office said Wednesday it was not disclosing ongoing investigations, but added it had no “referral in this case.”
The sheriff’s office investigation was sparked in late July, ahead of the state’s Aug. 2 primary, when signs appeared near some Seattle-area drop boxes reading “This ballot drop box is under surveillance. The signs warned of criminal penalties for “harvesting” ballots. In Washington, it is not illegal to cast another person’s ballot.
The signs also included a QR code to report “suspicious activity”. This code linked to a page on the King County Republican Party website. Party chairman Mathew Patrick Thomas disavowed the effort. In an interview with the Seattle Times at the time, he said he was unaware of the signs placed and ordered party activists to “stop doing this”.
“As Chairman of KCGOP, I was not consulted about this activity and was not made aware of it until I was contacted separately by the Chief Electoral Officer of King County, Julie Wise and the media,” Thomas told the newspaper.
The panels were quickly removed. But not before Seattle’s Jessica Fuller spotted one near her local library’s drop box in the Ballard neighborhood. Fuller was one of many citizens who alerted King County Elections to the signs.
“I think it’s dishonest, it’s under the guise of protecting democracy, but it’s not,” Fuller said in an interview Wednesday. “It intimidates voters.”
But neither Fuller nor any of the other witnesses contacted by the sheriff’s office said the signs deterred them from voting legally — a potentially key piece of evidence in proving voter intimidation.
“I’m glad no voter said they felt so intimidated that they didn’t vote,” King County Chief Electoral Officer Julie Wise said in a statement.
Wise added: “I believe the parties involved, as well as anyone else seeking to interfere with the vote in any form, have been put on notice – attempts to dissuade voters will be met with effect.”
Wise said his office would remain “vigilant” about similar efforts ahead of the general election this fall.
Separately, also in July, a statewide effort called “WA Citizens United to Secure Ballot Boxes” recruited volunteers to monitor drop boxes to monitor “suspicious activity.”
To date, the people behind the effort have not come forward or publicly discussed their efforts — and they have not been the subject of the sheriff’s investigation. Attempts to contact the organization were unsuccessful.
In a statement in July, U.S. Attorney Nick Brown for the Western District warned that voter intimidation is a federal crime and said “any attempt to harass or discourage citizens from voting at our state’s secure ballot boxes will be investigated and prosecuted in federal court. ”
In a follow-up statement Wednesday, Brown said, “Our office stands ready to work with our law enforcement partners to investigate and prosecute threats of violence, hate crimes and efforts to intimidate voters or those who are responsible for ensuring free and fair elections in our state.
According to a Georgetown University Law School Fact Sheetvoter intimidation is defined as activity “that seeks to coerce potential voters into voting against their preferences, or not voting at all, by activity reasonably calculated to instill fear”.
This can include, according to the fact sheet, “spreading false information about voter fraud, voting requirements, or related criminal penalties.”
It is not illegal to observe a ballot box and, in fact, there is a tradition of partisan election observers doing so, especially during times when election workers are picking up ballots. However, the groups engaged in monitoring primary election drop boxes were not official observers.
Since the 2020 election, some supporters of former President Donald Trump have falsely claimed that ballot boxes are a means to commit voter fraud. Conservative author and commentator Dinesh D’Souza’s film “2000 Mules” fueled the conspiracy theory that ballot “mules” were stuffing ballot boxes with fake ballots in major swing states.
This allegation – which has been widely debunked — is what seemed to drive the drop box monitoring program in King County. The sheriff’s report included a screenshot of a message thread about putting up the signs at drop boxes. One of the messages read in part: “Let’s put the FEAR OF GOD into ballot-dealing mules!”
Election officials and experts in Washington state and nationally say voting by mail and ballot boxes are a secure method of voting. Even if someone has put fake ballots in a drop box, there are mechanisms in place, including signature checks, to ensure that only legal ballots are counted.
This story was reported with Jim Brunner of the Seattle Times.
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