OLYMPIA — As President Donald Trump repeatedly attacked mail balloting this year and the U.S. Postal Service implemented changes that slowed mail delivery over the summer, Secretary of State Kim Wyman sought to ease those concerns.
Wyman, a two-term Republican running for reelection, implemented a rule change in coordination with county auditors to make sure ballots would be sent quickly enough. And in interviews and statements, she touted the safeguards of Washington’s vote-by-mail system that have been developed over the years.
“So that when someone like President Trump starts attacking the integrity of our voting systems, I can talk about how it’s not only accessible but secure,” said Wyman in an interview.
But her Democratic challenger, Rep. Gael Tarleton of Seattle, said Wyman hasn’t done enough to push back against Trump and the Postal Service changes, which a federal judge later suspended until after the election. Tarleton, a former Port of Seattle commissioner is trying to be the first Democrat elected to the statewide office in more than 50 years.
“I don’t know about you, but I haven’t talked to a single person who’s relying on the mail collection to deliver their ballot,” said Tarleton. “They are either going to a ballot drop box or they are going to the auditor’s office or going to the Post Office in person to see them put the postmark on it.”
The office that five-term Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro once called a “low-level, low-profile position” has been anything but that in recent years.
As Wyman and Tarleton exchange barbs ahead of the Nov. 3 election, they find an office increasingly on the front lines of battles over democracy.
In 2016, Russian agents targeted elections systems across the nation. Seeking weak spots, they scanned Washington’s elections system — but did not breach it. More recently, the office implemented Washington’s same-day voter registration law, which included the bumpy early rollout of a new statewide voter management system intended to be more secure than the old system.
This year, Trump has relentlessly attacked mail voting — which some states are expanding amid the COVID-19 pandemic — as he seeks to sow doubt about the coming election results.
One of the few remaining Republicans elected to statewide office on the continental West Coast, Wyman has become a go-to spokesperson nationally in defense of voting by mail, touting Washington’s long experience. She and her office have given advice to other states during the pandemic as they ramp up mail balloting to protect their residents against COVID-19.
Wyman argues her decadeslong experience as an election administrator — which began as elections director and then auditor for Thurston County — makes her best suited for the job.
“Because how you implement law matters, how election officials implement a new law for voters matters,” she said.
“And that’s the difference between Gael’s experience as a legislator, writing policies, writing bills, creating new laws,” added Wyman. “That’s great and important, but you have to actually implement them at some point, and that’s really where our two skill sets are completely different.”
If reelected, Wyman said she wants to push to make an “unaffiliated” option for voters to cast ballots in the next presidential primary without revealing their party preference, which they must currently do. She wants to move the August primaries to spring in order to boost turnout. And Wyman would also push to make the secretary of state a nonpartisan office.
Tarleton — who currently chairs the House Finance Committee — said she wants to imagine what future elections will demand of the office. She said she wants to find ways to expand automatic voter registration, such as adding the option somehow at high schools or colleges.
And Tarleton said the state should consider strengthening its processes to make sure signatures on ballots are verified.
“This job has changed, and the future is going to require us to think very differently about how we expand voter registration and voter participation,” said Tarleton. “How we continue to protect voting rights even when they are under attack by any source, foreign or domestic. And we need to start innovating.”
The secretary of state is second in line — after lieutenant governor — to succeed the governor. In addition to elections oversight, the office oversees a grab-bag of roles, like the registration of businesses and nonprofits, and the supervising of the state library and the state archives.
The two campaigns this year have been fairly evenly matched in spending.
As of Tuesday, Wyman had raised about $958,000, and Tarleton had raised roughly $882,000, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Wyman has been endorsed by dozens of present and past election officials, including former secretaries of state Sam Reed, Ralph Munro and Bruce Chapman, and current Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, a Democrat. Tarleton is endorsed by dozens of Democratic elected officials, including Gov. Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, and U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.