U.S. Rep. Denny Heck was off-base when he suggested Secretary of State Kim Wyman was among officials “complicit” in President Donald Trump’s war on mail voting at a Seattle campaign event Aug. 17. Although Wyman is a Republican, she has spoken up repeatedly — and rightly — to defend the trustworthy process against Trump’s slander.
Heck’s offhand remark points to a deeper problem plaguing state governance: the inappropriate politicization of Washington’s elections by Trump and Democrats alike. This is overtly seen in the deeply partisan campaign of Wyman’s opponent, state Rep. Gael Tarleton, who has repeatedly fabricated linkages between Wyman’s stewardship and Trump’s undermining. Tarleton faulted Wyman for a correct decision to buy higher postage to ensure late ballots were delivered faster, claiming that it plays into Trump’s hands.
Such nonsense shows why the management of Washington’s elections must stop being used as a partisan football.
Wyman, a two-term Republican, should be reelected precisely because she has championed voting by mail as a county and statewide elections administrator for decades. She is a national advocate for the process, appearing as a knowledgeable advocate for mail balloting in countless news articles and news programs. Wyman so charmed CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, he joked about moving to Washington state: “Wow! … It’s a pleasure to talk to someone who’s interested in the facts, I’ve got to tell you. It’s rarer and rarer.”
So true. That’s why gratuitous partisan attacks on a secretary of state who has umpired elections successfully is so disappointing.
Wyman has proposed a bold idea that should be embraced: remove partisan affiliation from how the secretary of state is elected.
The problem isn’t just the party-line attack from Heck, an otherwise qualified Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. It’s the rhetorical war that eviscerated the bipartisan spirit Washington politicians long cherished.
Think of Slade Gorton in 1974, breaking Republican ranks as attorney general to call, ahead of history, for President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Or former Secretary of State Sam Reed, advocating for the top-two primary when the political parties wanted to shut down voter choice and going to the Supreme Court when it was challenged.
No faction has a monopoly on good governance. Down is not up just because an opponent believes in gravity. Gov. Jay Inslee is not a tyrant for requiring face masks during a pandemic. Wyman is not helping Trump attack vote by mail.
This demonstrates why Wyman’s office should be designated nonpartisan.
Several state offices — Supreme Court justices and the superintendent of public instruction — are elected as nonpartisan already. Education and justice are sacrosanct and must be detached from politics to support equity. That’s no less necessary for elections. Distributing ballots and counting votes must be done without a thumb on the scale. And the public must witness a fair process for participation to grow.
The vote-by-mail system expanded across decades by Wyman’s predecessors Reed and Ralph Munro, both Republicans, has been modernized under Wyman to ease registration and include postage-paid return ballots. A centralized online system lets voters verify their ballots count and gives county officials instant notice of registration problems.
Yet partisan attacks have intensified. As Washington swings bluer, Democrats strive for the secretary of state office held by Republicans since the 1960s. This nonsense must cease. Voters should choose a secretary of state to run elections well, not because of the party label. Making the office nonpartisan is mainly a cooling step. But that’s necessary for an era of intense politicization.
“From an optic standpoint, that would in the long run inspire confidence to a greater degree,” Wyman said.
Her Democratic opponent, Tarleton, has missed no opportunity to lash the incumbent to Trump. This glib linkage echoes the strident tone state Democratic chair Tina Podlodowski took running against Wyman four years ago.
Don’t believe it.
It should be the last use of partisan lockstep over an office that must be impartially run, as Wyman has done.
This reform would be a national first. Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno, a Republican, publicly discussed taking her office nonpartisan in 2019 but never pushed legislation. Wyman should be reelected to help distance Washington elections from overheated partisanship at both ends of the spectrum.