OLYMPIA — Fears of foreign interference and manipulation of America’s elections. A president seeking to discredit the reputation of mail balloting. A global pandemic that has complicated the sacrosanct democratic ritual of voting.
Amid these historic challenges, voters this year will have a chance to elect a secretary of state, the official who oversees Washington’s election system.
As Secretary of State Kim Wyman seeks her third term, she’s gearing up to face Rep. Gael Tarleton, a Democrat from Seattle and former Port of Seattle commissioner.
As a Republican who has been able to win statewide elections, Wyman is a rarity on the West Coast. After serving as Thurston County auditor — who oversees elections — she won statewide office in 2012 and was reelected in 2016.
Wyman has been vocal in touting the benefits of Washington’s vote-by-mail system, even as President Donald Trump and some others in the GOP seek to sow doubts about the security of mail ballots ahead of the Nov. 3 elections.
“We have built the most accessible and secure election system in the country, and I’m really proud of that, that has been a bipartisan effort close to 30 years in the making,” said Wyman.
But Democrats — who have seen voters go Republican for every secretary of state race since 1964 — say Wyman isn’t right for the current challenges.
Tarleton and others have contended Wyman hasn’t done enough to make sure Washington is protected against election interference from foreign governments.
“The secretary of state had not taken the lead in addressing how we would deal with that persistent threat,” said Tarleton, 61, who currently chairs the House Finance Committee.
The secretary of state oversees a variety of roles, including the registration of nonprofits and businesses, and the supervising of the state archives and state library. The position is second in line — behind the lieutenant governor — to succeed the governor.
But the office’s best-known — and perhaps most critical — job is registering voters and overseeing Washington’s elections.
It’s an increasingly vital role, as foreign actors continue to try to manipulate American elections. Russian agents in 2016 targeted election systems in every state. Searching for weak spots, they scanned the state’s elections system — but failed to breach it.
U.S. officials are worried Russia’s latest efforts could be more sophisticated and include efforts to disrupt elections, according to news reports, or even just lead Americans to distrust accurate election results. More broadly, both foreign and domestic efforts to spread misinformation about elections has also been a concern.
In the wake of the 2016 Russian interference, Wyman worked to tighten election security, including recruiting the cyber-specialists from the Washington National Guard to help protect the 2018 midterm elections.
She also worked to get funding for her office and county elections officials — who administer elections — across the state to increase their information-technology security capabilities and training.
This year’s race comes as Trump seeks to discredit the security of voting by mail ahead of his own reelection race.
Washington’s vote-by-mail elections are considered safer than many other states, national experts have said, in no small part because mail-in ballots allow for audits and recounts.
This year, Wyman has advised election officials in other states on how they could expand mail voting to protect people during the global coronavirus pandemic. And she said she has invited Trump and U.S. Attorney General William Barr to Washington to learn about the state’s voter system.
Wyman said that she isn’t endorsing any candidates this campaign cycle — other than a superior court judge she endorsed late last year. She will vote in the presidential election, Wyman said, but wouldn’t say whether she would vote for Trump.
The race is guaranteed to drawn attention through the Aug. 4 primary and Nov. 3 general election. As of Friday, Wyman has raised $603,784, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC). Tarleton, meanwhile, has brought in $294,963.
Also on the Aug. 4 primary ballot are Gentry Lange, identified as a progressive, and Ed Minger, an independent. Minger has not reported raising any funds, according to the PDC, and Lange has reported raising $248 as of Friday.
Jeff Winmill, a Seattle attorney who had worked on the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, declared to run last year, but ultimately didn’t file for the seat.
In 2012, Seattle voters elected Tarleton to the House. She had previously served as a Port of Seattle commissioner and earlier in her career worked at the Pentagon as a defense analyst.
She touts proposals in recent years intended to strengthen the state’s election systems, including House Bill 1251. Tarleton first sponsored a version of that proposal in 2018. This year, the Legislature passed it into law.
HB 1251 requires the Secretary of State’s Office to consult with other state officials and county auditors to identify breaches of election data or systems and provide an annual report on its findings.
The new law also requires any voting systems in the state to pass a vulnerability test before being leased or purchased.
And after the Legislature in 2018 passed legislation to implement same-day voter registration, Wyman was tasked with implementing a new statewide voter system. That system experienced a rocky rollout last spring,
The major bugs were worked out in time for the August and November elections, but some county elections officials have said they continue to have problems with it here and there.
If elected, Tarleton said she wants to find ways to boost voter registration across Washington. And she wants to conduct an audit on the new system.
“We must do an audit on its performance, because it’s failing,” Tarleton said.
If reelected, Wyman says she wants to complete a project on a new archives library building, and further expand voter education and outreach, especially to boost turnout in non-presidential year elections.
And she would press to officially convert her elected position into a nonpartisan job— much like the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“This becomes a very partisan race every year,” said Wyman. “All three years I’ve been on the ballot.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that voters this year would choose a new secretary of state.