OLYMPIA — Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman is proposing new safeguards against ballot tampering and foreign manipulation of elections, as the state’s election administrators brace for attacks.
Federal officials have warned that election tampering and disinformation by Russia or other foreign influences could grow more sophisticated than in 2016’s presidential elections. That year, Russian hackers targeted the voting systems of all 50 states. Although they scanned Washington state’s voter-registration system in search of weaknesses, no breaches occurred, Wyman has said.
Washington’s elections system is considered one of the safer ones in the nation — partly because the mail-in ballot system serves as a paper trail for votes.
Since the 2016 elections, Wyman and lawmakers have taken several steps to further protect against cybersecurity threats. But Wyman is calling for more protection, calling on lawmakers to pass legislation requested by her office as Senate Bill 6412 and its companion bill, House Bill 2647.
Wyman is seeking $1.8 million in state money for security in county election offices that would make Washington eligible for another $8.6 million in matching federal funds, according to Wyman’s office. The legislation would also provide stricter penalties and restrictions surrounding the collection of ballots, and provide more thorough postelection audits for race recounts.
In addition, the proposal would eliminate online ballots for military and overseas voters, to reduce the risk of potential malware coming into elections offices.
In a news conference Wednesday, Wyman said the system, like others around the country, is “under constant attack” by foreign actors and others.
“We’re anticipating that they are probably trying to influence campaigns as we sit here right now,” she said, adding later: “They just have to get it right once, we have to get it right 24/7.”
It remains to be seen whether the proposal sought by Wyman — a Republican who is seeking her third term — will move forward.
The plan to ward off ballot tampering quickly drew criticism from Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia.
That part of the legislation would attempt to protect against “ballot harvesting,” where a person collects other people’s ballots. The proposal would create a class C felony for anyone who knowingly destroys or fails to deliver a ballot on behalf of someone else.
It also would require people collecting ballots from voters they don’t know to keep a log of those ballots and turn them over to elections officials. That would create a “chain of custody” to track ballots, Wyman said. Ballot collectors also would have to give receipts to the voters.
Hunt said that more stringent requirements to collect ballots could result in voter suppression and he hadn’t heard about any problems on that front.
“It’s a solution looking for a problem right now,” said Hunt, who chairs Senate State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee.
Hunt said that he does support the increased election-security funding, but that money can be included in this year’s supplemental state operating budget.
King County Elections Director Julie Wise said she supports Wyman’s proposal to boost funding on cybersecurity, as well as Senate Bill 6134, a proposal by Hunt to boost state funding more broadly for county election offices.
“Because security is expensive, and it is not a one-time thing,” said Wise, adding later: “As the hacks and the attempts get smarter and wiser, we have to build barriers that are stronger, as well.”
But she doesn’t favor eliminating email voting for military and overseas voters, of whom Wise said there are roughly 20,000 in King County.
Going to paper-only ballots in those circumstances could risk serious delays in ballots being sent or returned overseas, she said.
Wise said her office must open email attachments regularly from voters, for example, when staff receive voter-registration applications or a request to get voter data.
Wyman said she knows that part of her proposal might not be popular with county elections officials, because it could make their job harder.
“But from everything I’m learning at the federal level, the more electronic a process is … the more vulnerable our system is,” she said, adding later: “If anything, I would see us moving further away from electronic things.”
Since 2016, lawmakers, county elections officials and Wyman have worked to shore up Washington’s voter systems.
Last year, the state implemented a new centralized voter-registration system, which among other things is expected to reduce the risk of fraud and strengthen the security of elections.
Known as VoteWA, it had a bumpy rollout last spring, but handled the August primary and November general elections without major issues.
In 2018, Wyman called in cybersecurity experts with the Washington Air National Guard to help defend against attacks.