OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Democratic Secretary of State Steve Hobbs and nonpartisan Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson agreed on many things Wednesday in their first debate ahead of the November election: that more needs to be done to engage and assure voters of the safety and security of the state’s election system, there should be a push to increase audits to further combat election misinformation, and support for changing the state’s August primary date.
But the agreements only went so far.
They disagreed on the idea of ranked choice voting, and the role partisan labels play in a position that is charged with overseeing elections in a time of increased political polarization across the country.
“I don’t believe that political parties should be in the secretary of state’s office, and I think that the secretary of state in particular needs to be free from partisan influence,” Anderson said.
Hobbs said he didn’t think party labels matter and that instead “it matters what person you have in the office.” He noted that previous Republican secretaries of state worked in a bipartisan matter, something he said he did as well when in the state Senate.
There have not been any nonpartisan secretaries of state in Washington, but the last who was not a member of either the GOP or Democratic party was Will Jenkins, a Populist who was elected 1896 and served one term.
Hobbs was appointed by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee last November to replace Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman once she took a key election security job in the Biden administration, marking the first time a Democrat held the office since the mid-1960s. November’s election will determine who serves the last two years of Wyman’s term.
In the Aug. 2 top-two primary, Hobbs faced seven opponents and captured about 40% of the vote . Anderson garnered just under 13%, edging out four Republicans and shutting the GOP out of the November race.
In Wednesday’s debate, hosted by the Association of Washington Business, Anderson pointed to her experience overseeing hundreds of elections in Pierce County, the state’s second largest county by population.
“The secretary of state’s job is too important to entrust to an inexperienced political appointee,” she said. “Partisanship is a destructive distraction in a job like this.”
Hobbs noted that’s he’s already done the job for nearly a year, and said that his previous service in the U.S. Army and his ongoing experience as a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard has prepared him the challenges elections officials will continue to face.
“The office of secretary of state has evolved beyond that of simply overseeing elections and supporting our 39 counties to one where we’re protecting our democracy from cyberthreats and misinformation campaigns,” he said.
In addition, Hobbs — who is of Japanese descent and is the first person of color to head the office — said it’s important to have elected officials who reflect communities who may not feel they are represented.
“I understand all too well about these communities,” he said.
The other key area of disagreement was around ranked choice voting, a voting option that voters in Seattle will weigh in on in a November ballot measure. Under ranked choice, voters rank candidates by preference. If no candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, subsequent rankings are considered until a majority is reached.
Hobbs said that if local jurisdictions pass such election options, his office is obligated to and will help them conduct them. But he expressed his concerns, saying that with the challenges of getting people to vote under current conditions, it would be counterproductive to push a new system on them, especially communities of color and people with developmental disabilities.
“I am not against this idea,” he said. “What I am against is rushing forward and not thinking about those Washingtonians who are going to be disenfranchised.”
Anderson noted that dozens of jurisdictions across the country already use ranked choice voting and “the sky hasn’t fallen.”
“Ranked choice voting is coming to Washington state, and I don’t know in which local jurisdiction it’s going to land first, but what I do know is we’re going to need a secretary of state who isn’t going to stick their head in the sand and is going to get ahead of this,” she said.
In addition to being the state’s chief elections officer, the secretary of state also serves as chief corporations officer and supervisor of the state archives and state library.