Whatcom legislator missed floor votes during travel to El Salvador

Republican Washington state Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale has missed more votes on the final passage of bills out of the Senate this session than any other senator, records show. For some of those missed votes, he was in El Salvador, where he was observing elections that took place Feb. 28.

In a typical session, senators would have to be in Olympia to vote. But this session, most lawmakers are voting remotely because of COVID-19 precautions in place. There’s no rule prohibiting senators from being out of the state, Secretary of the Senate Brad Hendrickson confirmed.

However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends travelers avoid all travel to El Salvador, where levels of the disease are “very high.” Ericksen said in a text message that he took “multiple” COVID-19 tests and “all precautions.”

Ericksen’s roll call voting record for the session through March 9 shows he missed 38 of 205 votes on bills’ final passage. Using that same data, senators had been marked “absent” or “excused” 131 times at that point in session for those sort of votes — Ericksen accounted for 29 percent of them.

In a phone interview, Ericksen said he’s sure his trip impacted his ability to vote. But he pointed out that his one vote wouldn’t have changed the outcome of any of those bills in a chamber dominated by Democrats.

In text messages, he followed up to add he had participated in “legislative actions” while in El Salvador, such as caucus meetings and working with staff.

“Obviously if we were not working remotely, I would not have gone,” he wrote.

He did still successfully vote many times on bills’ final passage in the period he said he was abroad. Ericksen did not answer a follow-up question regarding whether it was technical issues or something else that prevented him from voting the times he did not.

In an emailed statement, Senate Minority Leader John Braun of Centralia said he knew Ericksen would be out on travel and agreed that Ericksen’s decision didn’t impact vote results.

“We are a citizen legislature,” Braun’s statement reads. “Many of us have jobs or other responsibilities that are capable of temporarily taking us away from the Senate. This year many of us also have experienced connectivity issues, regardless of location — even when we have been in Olympia.

“I knew Senator Ericksen was going to be out on travel. I don’t believe he made that decision lightly, knowing how seriously he takes his work on behalf of his district,” Braun said. “I understand he had verified connectivity and was confident about engaging in all of his legislative duties. I don’t see that his decision affected the outcome of any votes.”

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane and Lt. Gov. Denny Heck declined to comment for this story.

THE MISSED-VOTE COUNT

Roll call votes are required when bills are up for final passage out of the Senate, Secretary of the Senate Hendrickson confirmed.

Ericksen said he left for El Salvador the Saturday before the elections, Feb. 27, and that he believes he came back the following Thursday, which would’ve been March 4. McClatchy has requested a copy of his calendar and received an estimate of March 26 for the records to be available.

His roll call voting record this session through March 9 shows he missed voting on many bills’ passage out of the Senate in that general time frame: Eight on Feb. 25, one on the 26th, two on March 1, 13 on March 2, two on March 3, none on March 4, and 11 on March 5.

While he also successfully voted on bills each of those days, that time period accounts for all but one of the votes he’s missed so far this session on bills’ final passage. On Feb. 25, he also missed a vote in the Environment, Energy, and Technology Committee for which he’s the ranking member, on Gov. Jay Inslee’s cap-and-trade proposal.

McClatchy offered Ericksen the opportunity to provide reasons for missing 37 votes on bills’ passage out of the Senate between Feb. 25 and March 5, and he did not provide an explanation.

On March 3, he was apparently unable to connect to participate in floor debate. Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, a fellow founding member of the new “Freedom Caucus,” spoke to a proposed amendment on his behalf.

After a vote on a bill’s passage, which Ericksen participated in, Padden thanked the Legislative Service Center and caucus leaders for their work “trying to handle a virtual session” before decrying Ericksen’s inability to participate in debate.

“The 150,000-160,000 residents of the 42nd District were disenfranchised during this debate due to technical problems and the inability of the good senator, Sen. Doug Ericksen, from being able to participate in the debate,” he said, before naming other examples when senators couldn’t connect and voicing concerns over frequent glitches in audio.

Padden’s spokesperson, Booker Stallworth, said the senator did not know Ericksen was out of the country at the time.

OTHER SENATORS WHO MISSED VOTES

Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch accounts for the next-biggest portion of missed votes on bills’ passage. Records show Sheldon, a Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, missed 24 of the votes. Most of his missed votes happened on two days, Feb. 16 and 23.

He told McClatchy he had doctor appointments in Olympia on Feb. 16. On Feb. 23, he said he had his daughter’s birthday celebration and a Bonneville and Energy Northwest workshop on debt management. He doesn’t like missing votes, he said, and has traditionally had a good track record of avoiding it.

Sen. Jim Honeyford of Sunnyside accounted for the third-most missed votes on bills’ final passage, and all but one of his 17 came from a single day. Sen. Honeyford said via email that he was absent that day because he had sought a COVID-19 vaccine in Olympia, but was unsuccessful and had to return to his district to find an available dose.

In an analysis of roll call votes where senators were marked “absent” or “excused” on Ericksen’s voting record through March 9, McClatchy found no other senators had missed more than a dozen votes on bills’ final passage.

ERICKSEN’S TRIP TO EL SALVADOR

Ericksen posted a video about his trip to El Salvador on We Speak, a social media platform billed as a “constitutional and conservative, family friendly” platform “with no censorship,” and shared a link on his Facebook page.

“It’s always an interesting experience to travel to a different country to see how their election process works,” he says in the video. “In El Salvador, I was incredibly impressed with the organization of the election, the free and fair nature of the election, the ability for individuals to come and vote.”

He goes on to praise in-person voting, a requirement for voters to present photo identification, and other aspects of the election. The video also includes footage from the polls.

Footage shows Ericksen outfitted in an American flag face covering and wearing a lanyard apparently bearing credentials. He told McClatchy those credentials indicated his role as an election observer.

After the Feb. 28 election, the party of President Nayib Bukele and allies were set to claim a supermajority in the country’s Legislative Assembly. Critics fear the party is approaching authoritarian rule, according to The Washington Post’s election coverage.

Bukele’s actions have been compared to those of former U.S. President Donald Trump. He called a news conference on Election Day, The New York Times reported, to claim voting irregularities and mounted attacks on the press, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and attorney general.

Ericksen, who was operations director for Trump’s Western Washington campaign, said he was invited to El Salvador by multiple people, including the country’s vice president. The vice president had visited Washington last year, Ericksen said, and he hosted the official along with business and community leaders for events.

He says he paid for the trip to El Salvador with personal money, though he thinks a trip like this is part of any legislator’s role. He has proposed legislation that would end mail-in voting in Washington, require photo IDs to vote, make Election Day a state holiday, and institute other election-related changes.

ECHOES OF PAST CONTROVERSY

The report on Ericksen’s trip may sound familiar. He observed Cambodia’s 2018 elections at the invitation of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, as first reported by The Seattle Times.

Ericksen praised those widely condemned elections, the Times reported. He’s a registered foreign agent for Cambodia, and the company he launched with former state Rep. Jay Rodne has a $500,000 contract with the country’s government.

“Ericksen’s parlaying of his elected position into a business relationship with the authoritarian Hun Sen regime is attracting condemnation from human-rights activists, local Cambodian Americans, exiled leaders of Cambodia’s opposition party and even a Republican congressman,” the Seattle Times story reads.

Ericksen told McClatchy that his trip to El Salvador was separate from that work.

His missed votes also have been scrutinized before. He missed time in Olympia during the 2017 legislative session, after taking a temporary job with the Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency’s transition team.

At that time, his missing-in-action status got national attention. That was when Republicans controlled the state Senate by one vote, so everyone in the party was needed to pass party-line legislation. Some Democrats asserted he was slowing the committee process and forcing the chamber to work around his schedule.

In an interview with McClatchy, Ericksen suggested the line of questioning about El Salvador and his missed votes was leading to a “gotcha” story. He said he works hard for the people he represents.

“The key thing is I have election reform legislation,” Ericksen said. “And I think if the Democrats brought that up for a vote, that would be a great thing for Washington state.”

This story was originally published on The News Tribune.