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Nov. 26, 2022

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Candidates for Washington secretary of state disagree on experience, election management, cybersecurity

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SPOKANE — For the first time in years, the race for secretary of state in Washington does not include a Republican — at least not officially.

Democrat incumbent Steve Hobbs and nonpartisan candidate Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson will face off in the November election after finishing in the top two in the primary.

Both candidates have long political backgrounds and some experience in election administration, but they disagree on what experience is most important for the role of secretary of state.

The secretary of state is the state’s chief elections officer, and the role also includes archiving government records and providing information and access to the business community about corporations and charities.

Hobbs has pointed to his experience in the National Guard, dealing with cybersecurity and working on both sides of the aisle as a former state lawmaker. Anderson has made her experience as an auditor and her nonpartisan record the focus of her campaign.

She has criticized Hobbs for his lack of experience in election administration and other auditor duties.

In an Association of Washington Business debate in August, Anderson called Hobbs an “inexperienced political appointee.” Hobbs was appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee to replace former Republican Secretary Kim Wyman when she took a job in the Biden administration last fall. The winner of this year’s election will serve the remainder of Wyman’s term through 2024.

In an interview with The Spokesman-Review, Anderson pointed to her experience with some of the technical aspects of the job, such as administering elections, document preservation, public record keeping and business administration.

Anderson has been the Pierce County auditor since 2009. She served as a Tacoma City Council member and deputy mayor from 2004 to 2009.

“There is no substitute, in my opinion, for direct expertise,” Anderson said.

Hobbs, on the other hand, said the office has changed in recent years. It is much more of a leadership position that deals with cyberthreats and election security, he said. It’s more than overseeing elections, though Hobbs said he has done that in the last year in office.

Before his appointment last year, Hobbs served as a state senator since 2007. He has also served in the U.S. Army and the National Guard for 30 years.

“The governor had to appoint somebody that would take election security seriously and have the necessary background,” he said. “I’m the only one out there that has that.”

Hobbs has received endorsements from a number of Democratic members of Congress, including U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell; current and former state officials, including Attorney General Bob Ferguson and State Auditor Pat McCarthy; and state legislators, including Spokane Sen. Andy Billig.

Anderson has received endorsements from 38 current and former county auditors, including Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton; current and former state officials, including former Secretary of State Sam Reed and former Attorney General Rob McKenna; and local elected officials, including Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward.

With no official Republican candidate, the race has drawn at least one write-in campaign. After failing to make it to the general election in August primary for Congress in Central Washington’s 4th Congressional District race, state Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, has started a campaign for secretary of state. As of Thursday, he had no reported contributions, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.

On the issues

Anderson said she wants the office to be nonpartisan because she does not feel the job needs any “unnecessary conflict by belonging to a political party.” She said she does not feel political parties belong in an office that oversees elections.

It’s a discussion other candidates and previous secretaries, including Wyman, have had. Wyman said it was a policy change she would push for in a next term.

Hobbs said it doesn’t matter to him whether the office is nonpartisan. He said he can operate in both scenarios.

“It’s the person that’s in the office,” he said. “I don’t think it matters what label you have. It matters what person is in the office.”

Hobbs has made cybersecurity a priority.

He said he has put more money to double the cybersecurity staff and improve existing relationships with cyber units in the National Guard. He said his office is also working to back up VoteWA, the state’s voter database, into the cloud as opposed to a hard drive.

To improve cybersecurity, Anderson said she wants to see every county undergo penetration testing, where firewalls are regularly tested to see if there are any holes. She also wants to help every county perform tests on their tabulation systems to ensure they are not connected to the internet.

Another big issue in the race is how to handle election misinformation.

Already this election season, both candidates said they have worked in their respective offices to get the word out about the state’s elections processes.

Hobbs said he is working to inform the public about the voting and counting process. He said the office of secretary of state has received additional money this year to spread this message.

He said he wants to continue to push back against misinformation and work with a newly created division of his office that deals with information integrity.

“We have taken elections for granted, but the public doesn’t really know what goes on behind the scenes,” Hobbs said.

In Pierce County, Anderson said she has worked to improve their web pages with more information on the elections process and has remained engaged with the community about any questions they have.

To improve transparency, Anderson said if elected she also wants to do a statewide risk-limiting audit to ensure statistically valid samples from each county are taken for statewide races post-election. She also wants to create an election observer corps that would be staffed by nonpartisan volunteers to observe election operations and review voter registration records statewide.

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