To hear the candidates tell it, the campaign for secretary of state in Washington is about experience.
It is about experience in the military, including the National Security Agency, in the state Legislature and in the secretary of state office itself, says incumbent Democratic Secretary of State Steve Hobbs.
It is about experience actually running elections — registering voters, maintaining voter logs, counting ballots — for 13 years in the state’s second-largest county, says nonpartisan challenger Julie Anderson.
The secretary of state’s most important task is supervising elections and so the secretary of state should have experience running elections, Anderson says. Hobbs, who spent 15 years in the state Senate, is the first secretary of state in more than two decades to take office without experience as an elections administrator.
But, Hobbs says, the secretary of state doesn’t run elections, doesn’t send out ballots or count votes; that work is done by county auditors and elections directors.
The secretary of state’s job, Hobbs said, is more managerial, offering resources and assistance to the counties and ensuring the state’s voter rolls and election infrastructure are secure.
Whoever wins will make a bit of history. In a state dominated by Democrats, Republicans have dominated the secretary of state’s office for more than half a century. Hobbs would be the first Democrat elected to the office since 1960 and the first person of color ever elected to the office. Anderson would be the first nonpartisan candidate elected as Washington secretary of state, which supervises and certifies elections, registers businesses and nonprofits and preserves the historical records of the state.
The race is close. The new WA Poll, sponsored by The Seattle Times, KING 5, the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, and Washington State University’s Murrow College of Communication, found Hobbs leading Anderson 40% to 29%, with 30% undecided. Two other public polls within the last month found the race a dead heat or within a couple of points.
Hobbs was appointed secretary of state last year by Gov. Jay Inslee after Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who was just beginning her third term, stepped down to take an election security position in the Biden administration. The winner of November’s election will serve for two years, the remainder of Wyman’s term.
Ballots must be returned to county elections drop boxes by 8 p.m. Nov. 8 or postmarked by that date.
Hobbs won the August primary with about 40% of the vote. Anderson received about 13%, squeaking by two Republicans by less than a percentage point. Four Republicans split the conservative vote, leaving the GOP out of the general election despite holding the secretary of state’s office for 57 years before Wyman’s resignation.
The state Republican Party has endorsed a write-in campaign from state Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, who wants to ban mail voting and who has falsely claimed widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
Neither Hobbs nor Anderson wants to make huge changes. Both support Washington’s vote-by-mail system, which has led the state to be consistently among the national leaders in voter turnout. Both say it’s already pretty easy to vote in Washington and any changes should be on the edges. Hobbs mentioned increasing outreach to underserved communities that may have lower turnout numbers, and Anderson mentioned increasing ballot accessibility and options for people who don’t speak English.
The campaign to date has been rather sedate, with both candidates promoting themselves but not doing much to attack their opponent. Hobbs has raised about $700,000, more than twice as much as Anderson’s $310,000. But both figures are quite modest for a statewide campaign, trailing the highest spending candidates for state Legislature. Both candidates for secretary of state in 2020 raised more individually than Hobbs and Anderson have raised combined.
Hobbs, 52, of Lake Stevens, is a moderate Democrat and a lieutenant colonel in the Washington Army National Guard. In the state Senate, where he chaired the Transportation Committee, he frequently voted against high-profile party priorities.
The job of secretary of state, he said, has changed in recent years. It’s no longer just about managing and assisting county elections officials. Now it’s also about combating cyber threats and misinformation about elections.
More than one-third of Washington voters, and more than 70% of Washington Republicans express at least some doubt that Joe Biden truly won the 2020 election, according to a July poll from The Seattle Times and partners.
Hobbs sees it as part of his job to combat that, by doing more voter outreach and trying to educate voters about how elections work.
“We do a really good job of telling people ‘Hey, don’t forget to vote, turn in your ballot,’” he said. “We don’t do a good job of ‘Hey, did you know that we check every signature? Did you know that you can go into your county auditor and actually watch the process as it happens?’ “
State Auditor Pat McCarthy, a Democrat who’s endorsed Hobbs, said she’s been impressed, during his short tenure as secretary of state, with his focus on voter education and outreach.
That’s included knocking down a conspiracy theory that a sensor the state distributed to counties to alert them about potential hacking attempts was actually part of a left-wing plan to infiltrate their computer systems.
“His experience with cybersecurity and the misinformation and disinformation,” McCarthy said, “is really important.”
One of the key selling points of Anderson’s campaign is the three words that appear under her name in the state voting guide: Prefers nonpartisan party. There is no nonpartisan party, it’s an oxymoron.
Anderson, 58, of Tacoma, is running as a nonpartisan candidate, with no party affiliation. But the standard forms used to fill out the voters guide can’t quite compute that, thus the excess verbiage.
“For me, it just doesn’t make sense to have somebody who is overseeing elections be a member of a political party, because political parties are designed to overcome and defeat each other,” Anderson said. Running without party affiliation — as she’s done in serving five years on the Tacoma City Council and then 13 years as the Pierce County auditor — reduces conflicts of interest and increases voter trust, Anderson said.
She says party affiliation can make it more difficult for the secretary of state to achieve priorities in the partisan state Legislature. And she points to challenges Wyman faced: spending time, energy and credibility, and having to be a “spokesperson for her party’s behavior,” as Republicans led by former President Donald Trump made evidence-free claims of voting fraud and conspiracy.
“I don’t want to be part of a team,” Anderson said.
All counties already run random postelection audits, to ensure paper ballots match machine results. Anderson wants to expand the practice statewide, drawing random batches of ballots from each county to ensure there haven’t been errors.
Anderson wants to create a nonpartisan election observer corps, to go with the observers from each political party who currently observe ballot counting.
Benton County Auditor Brenda Chilton, a Republican who’s endorsed Anderson, said Anderson was instrumental in helping her agency set up a nonpartisan election observer program.
They could never get observers to show up, Chilton said, until they copied Anderson’s program in Pierce County and started offering small daily stipends to observers.
“She’s an expert in the field of elections,” Chilton said. “Pierce County is the first county that comes to mind when we’re looking to refine our operations or looking for best practices; I always reach out to Julie.”