To protect voters and the election process in a fraught year, at least three Washington counties will have some sort of security presence at ballot drop boxes or elections offices at points during the voting period, officials said Wednesday.
In King County, plainclothes security officers will keep an eye on drop boxes, county officials said. Other measures are being taken in Snohomish and Thurston counties.
Meanwhile, experts with Washington National Guard will be working Election Day evening, monitoring for any cybersecurity threats, according to Secretary of State Kim Wyman.
Washingtonians have begun to cast votes by mail for president, U.S. Congress, governor, attorney general, the state Legislature and a host of other races.
It’s a perhaps unprecedented level of security for an election that could see record turnout and has been marked by the coronavirus pandemic, deepening political rifts, scattered civil unrest and fears of fresh attempts by bad actors to hack or de-legitimatize America’s democratic processes.
Still, in a news conference Wednesday, King County Elections Director Julie Wise and King County Executive Dow Constantine expressed confidence in Washington’s voting system.
The state — one of a handful used to voting by mail — has numerous safeguards and security features in place, and long experience working with mail ballots.
Despite voter concerns, “the folks here at elections are geared up and ready to go,” said Constantine. He added later: “Each one of us through our vote has our hand on the tiller of the ship of state.”
Regardless, Wise and Constantine urged residents to vote early, as 1.4 million ballots are being mailed across King County.
Turnout could even hit 90%, said Wise, which would eclipse the previous high of 85% in the 2012 general election.
If King County voters haven’t received their ballots by Oct. 19 (Monday), Wise said they should call elections officials at 206-296-8683.
The county officials announced the safety measures after President Donald Trump has for months disparaged voting by mail and sown doubt about the election results while he trails in the polls.
The president has not committed to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose, and has encouraged his supporters to monitor polling places, which has raised fears about voter intimidation.
Washington has a law against electioneering within 25 feet of a drop box, said Wise.
Her department is working with the King County Sheriff’s Office and other county officials to share information during the election period. To make sure voters aren’t intimidated, plainclothes security will be keeping an eye on drop boxes.
“Those at drop boxes and vote centers will be private security specifically there to help de-escalate any situations that might arise, for example, [from]what we call very passionate voters,” wrote Kendall LeVan Hodson, Wise’s chief of staff, in an email after the news conference. “They will be at drop boxes across the county including Seattle.”
On election night, some law enforcement officers will be posted at “our highest-traffic boxes specifically to help us with rerouting lights and traffic” to help handle long lines of motorists, she added.
Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall said sheriff’s deputies will be present on election night at that county’s ballot-processing center, at its temporary voting center, and also will accompany election workers who will pick up ballots from drop boxes.
“It’s just dealing with a very emotional voting public,” said Hall.
Thurston County’s ballots went out late last week, and Hall said Wednesday that the number of ballots returned so far is outpacing 2016 at the comparable point in time.
Snohomish County “will have an increased security presence at the boxes throughout the voting period and [we] have been working with local law enforcement,” wrote Auditor Garth Fell in an email.
Ballots are set to be mailed Thursday to Snohomish County’s 500,000 registered voters, according to Fell.
If Snohomish County voters haven’t received a ballot by Oct. 21 (Wednesday), they should call the elections office at 425-388-3444, or visit votewa.gov to ask for a replacement ballot, Fell wrote.
This summer, the Trump administration made several changes to the U.S. Postal Service that led to a slowdown in mail delivery. A federal judge last month ordered a halt to those changes after a legal challenge by Washington and 13 other states.
Wise, Hall and other local election officials, along with Wyman, a Republican, have expressed confidence in USPS delivery here.
During the August primary elections, 99.96% of King County voters received their ballots within five days of being mailed, Wise said.
National Guard cybersecurity officers will meanwhile be assisting on Election Day, said Wyman, a reprise of a role they played in 2018’s midterm elections.
That effort started after federal officials announced that Russian hackers in 2016 had targeted election systems in at least 21 states — including Washington.
While hackers scanned Washington’s voter-registration systems in search of weak spots, no breaches were made.
When voters return their ballots early, it allows election officials time to process ballots — for instance, checking signatures to make sure they match with what is on record.
Wise expressed confidence in the county’s ability to take in, process and count ballots.
“Here in King County, we know that we are ready for anything this election is going to throw our way,” said Wise, adding later, “Our drop boxes are steel tanks.”
But she also announced the county would perform an additional audit of 20,000 random ballots while returns are being counted to make sure the process is accurate. Said Wise: “It’s an extra thing that King County wants to do.”