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News / Politics / Election

WA Secretary of State Steve Hobbs talks misinformation, primaries

The state’s chief elections officer sat down for an interview about ranked-choice voting, the 2024 election and more.

By Donna Gordon Blankinship, Crosscut
Published: March 4, 2024, 6:05am

As Washington voters think about what they’re going to do with their presidential primary ballots, Secretary of State Steve Hobbs has bigger concerns: how to convince voters the system is safe, secure and worth participating in.

Oh, and also fun.

In a recent interview with Crosscut, Hobbs talked about election-worker safety, why he’s changed his mind about ranked-choice voting and how his office has evolved from being the cheer team for voting to an AI-armed force against disinformation.

The conversation is posted below, or you can listen to the Crosscut Reports podcast. Both have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Crosscut: Why does Washington have a presidential primary when the candidates are usually chosen before March?

Hobbs: According to state law, both political parties in the state submit names to us. We just turn it around and put it on the ballot. The contest still goes on. The national convention happens for both political parties sometime in July and August. It depends on how many delegates are assigned to the candidate. So we chose in March, and that’s where we’re at.

So is the primary in Washington mostly about the delegates and not so much about the candidates?

Well, it’s both because the political parties use the primary as a means to allocate delegates to the convention. Now, obviously, you have, you know, one on the Democratic side. I mean, there’s two others that are on the ballot, with Biden. But I mean, for all intents and purposes, he is the incumbent. And then of course on the Republican side, at this moment in time, Trump seems to be the front runner. So, you know, I can only assume but then there’s Nikki Haley. So I’m sure that Haley’s probably going to get some delegates. And of course we’ve got other names on the Republican primary ballot, because these people dropped out after the Republicans submitted their names. So there might be a couple of delegates for those other ones too.

Our presidential primary process has changed over the last decade. Can you talk a little bit about the history of our primary?

Not too long ago, in the past, it was by caucus. And over time, we’ve changed that to a primary system. We have to accommodate both parties, because it’s a party nomination process. And that’s just the way it is. And that’s backed by the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. And so we run this primary election for both political parties. People always get upset once every four years. Because they get the ballot, and they realize they have to pick a side. And they’ve got to sign to attest that they’re voting as a Democrat or voting as a Republican. But look, it’s not me. Don’t get mad at me. It’s the way I have to conduct this.

And that’s according to state law and federal law.

Yes. In fact, by Supreme Court decisions.

The previous Secretary of State, Kim Wyman, and other political leaders talked about moving the primary even earlier to get Washington more into the mix of states that decide the nominees. Is that something you’re interested in? Is it still being debated when we have our primary?

I usually try to take directions from both political parties, how they feel. And though there was talk on the Democratic side to move it, it never, never really came up as a strong point. And so that’s where we’re at right now. Who knows, maybe in the future, both parties might want to move the primary, but I kinda hope they don’t. Just to keep it the way it is so we don’t make too any changes.

And changes are complicated, right, for you.

Well, changes are complicated, because when we print the ballot, and what’s going on the calendar, you know, if it gets too close to another election, now you have to print two ballots. So, yeah, it can get complicated.

And it’s not an option to just say, ‘Oh, we don’t want to have a presidential primary.’ You already said that the Supreme Court has decided.

It’s a party nomination process. I mean, I suppose if both parties decide, Hey, I’m gonna go back to the caucus system, and then we’re out. I mean, maybe in the future, they go back to that, but I doubt it. Both parties actually support the primary.

Yeah, and the caucuses became a problem as our state continued to grow. People found it hard to participate.

Right. Not everybody can just take the time to go to a caucus meeting.

Well, let’s talk about the 2024 election more generally. You’ve talked about efforts to fight misinformation about elections, and some other people are talking about the need for more election security. What more can Washington do to fight misinformation and give voters of this state confidence that their elections are secure?

Sure, you know, the one thing that all the voters can do, any citizen can do, is simply just ask questions and reach out to their local county auditor, reach out to my office, we’ll tell you what’s going on with the elections. Or if they don’t trust us, they can physically go down to the election center and actually see the ballots being processed.

Do you need to make an appointment to do that? Or can you just show up?

A lot of times, you can just show up. In fact, I don’t know of any county where there’s an appointment process. I think you just show up.

How is this election going to be different from the one four years ago, and not just because of COVID?

Well, the main thing is the amount of misinformation that happened four years ago and the fact that you have a population that doesn’t trust elections. So in a KING5 poll two years ago, 35% of Washingtonians didn’t trust the election. So we have to change the way we talk about elections. In the past, secretaries of state and election officials would say, ‘Hey, don’t forget to vote.’

We’re really good about telling you about not forgetting to vote, but we didn’t do a very good job of telling you the life cycle of the ballot. That’s what we have to do now. We have to tell people, ‘Hey, don’t forget to vote. But hey, did you know the tabulation machines are not connected to the Internet? Did you know that our state is part of ERIC, which is the Electronic Registration Information Center and that other states are tied to that, and that if you move to another ERIC state, and you register there, we’ll know about it?’

We know about when people die, and all of a sudden the ballot shows up, right? And it’s supposedly from this person, but we will know about it. And by the way, probably 99% of the time, when you get a ballot from someone that is deceased, it is because the spouse has voted for them. It’s usually kind of a sad moment because they’re just trying to keep their loved one in their memories. And unfortunately, we catch it because we check every signature. And so we notice the signature is slightly different. But, like I said, 99% of the time it’s a sad story.

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That is sad. I had a friend who was going through a divorce and one of the reasons was that her husband insisted on voting for her. I told her that’s illegal.

Yeah, that is illegal and we would have caught it if they would have signed it for her.

In November, we reported on some white powder showing up in the mail at a number of elections offices. Do we know anything more about what happened and have any changes been made as a result of that incident?

We don’t. We know it’s an ongoing investigation. That’s all I can pretty much tell you. And that in some instances, or most instances, that white powder was fentanyl, or mixed in with other white substances, probably baking soda. But there have been some changes, we immediately put out the word to our 39 counties that if you want to access some funds, to maybe get some PPE, you know, like goggles and gloves and everything. But a lot of counties already had from COVID that PPE. I know that King County put in an eyewash station within their election center. And so definitely, there are counties that are making adjustments because of that.

You supported a bill in the Legislature last year to make harassing an election worker a Class C felony. That bill passed the House but did not get a hearing in the Senate. Is it being reconsidered this year?

It is in fact. It is sitting in the Senate, and it is scheduled for a hearing. And I was told by the chair that she plans to move it out as soon as possible. So I think this is our year to get it through.

So what would that bill do?

Oh, just like you said it would apply a Class C felony to harassment election workers.

Do we have a lot of that happening in Washington, or is this a precautionary thing?

Enough where we have county auditors and election workers who are afraid to come to work or overly cautious during election season? I’ve myself had two or three threats, threats on social media, that most of the time law enforcement is not going to react to. But people should not be harassed when they’re just trying to do their job.

And isn’t that part of the misinformation campaign? The harassment is sort of a result of that.

It is, because you have a segment of the population that feels like, you know, it’s the election workers, it’s the auditor that’s actually trying to change the election. That’s simply not true.

You talked a little bit about combating misinformation in informing the public? What methods are you using to get that information out? TV commercials, ads on the internet?

Yeah, there’s a couple of ways that we’re tackling misinformation. The one thing I’ll like to tell people the best way to tackle misinformation is with the truth. And that’s why now we are modifying our message by telling people, you know, obviously we remind them when to vote. But we follow up with, Hey, you know the tabulation machines are not connected to the internet? Are part of ERIC? Why don’t you go to your election center and actually see the process going on.

Those are in TV ads. It’s in radio ads. It’s when you fill up your car at the gas station, sometimes the screen on the gas pump, that’s going to have something. There’ll be digital ads. We even have grassroots efforts — people going out in the community and talking about this. It’ll be in different languages. So yes, we are definitely trying to push back.

We also use a third-party vendor called Logically that scans social media and looks at the trends out there. So for example, we’ll get a report and it says these are the trends about elections, these are the messages that are being talked about. So far, nothing big, right? But I’m sure that could happen as we go into 2024. Because you have misinformation generated not just at the local level, but you also have misinformation generated from adversarial state actors, like Russia would be an example of a country that does that.

And so we might get a report that the trending message is, ‘Hey, did you know that they’re hacking in two tabulation machines?’ Well, if I see that it’s really trending, then we can put out our own messages on social media, reach out to the news media, so that we can get that corrected by saying, ‘Hey, this is what people are saying. But it’s not true, because the tabulation machines are not connected to the internet. And oh, by the way, if you want to verify that, come down to the county auditor and actually look at the tabulation machine.

What are your thoughts about ranked-choice voting, and why do you feel that way?

Oh, I have lots of feelings about ranked-choice voting. I’m completely against ranked-choice voting; I used to be for it. But when you occupy this office, you have to take a step back and look at how elections affect everyone. Right? You know, the top three things, transparency, accessibility and security is what I look at. And then just with my own personal situation, my mom came to this country, she didn’t know any English. You know, we both learned by watching Sesame Street. And then my middle son is a child with special needs. So imagine, if you will, a naturalized citizen where English is not their first language, receiving a ballot, where they have to vote by ranked choice? How are they going to do that? They don’t know how to do that.

The other thing is we put voters’ guides out, but whether a community receives a guide is based on a federal trigger. In those places where for most people English is not their first language, like communities like Skagit where there’s a large Hispanic population, they’re not receiving a voters’ guide. So there’s going to be people who are going to be disenfranchised because they’re going to get this ballot, not realizing, oh, I’ve got to do it by ranked-choice voting.

And then I think about my son with cognitive disabilities. Now, he can vote. He’s over the age of 18. He has every right to vote, but the way he votes is he looks at the voters’ guide, he probably doesn’t read it all. Because of his cognitive disability, he probably goes off the pictures. And then he marks his ballot. And it’s very simple for him because he just colors in the bubble. Now, if I gave him a ballot where he had to do ranked choice, it’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible.

Now the advocates will tell you, Hey, secretary, you know, look, everyone’s participating, even naturalized citizens. But the issue is they’re not taking full advantage of their vote, because with ranked-choice voting, in order to take full advantage of your vote, you have to rank them all. Well, all you’ve got to do is look at the New York City mayor’s race. And notice that white affluent communities in New York took full advantage of their ballot, but other areas did not. And that’s why I am no longer for ranked-choice voting because you will disenfranchise people. They will not take full advantage of their vote because they don’t understand what they’re doing.

Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about, about the election or Legislature or your office?

Oh, yeah, certainly there’s actually another bill that we’re trying to oppose right now that is eliminating odd-year elections. And I get what the advocates are trying to do. Because even years you have a higher turnout; I get it. And, you know, we are constantly trying to have higher turnout every year including the odd years. But the problem is, if you move everything to an even-year election, you’re going to start having drop-off in the middle of the ballot, because now your ballot’s two or three pages, because your PUD commissioner, your sewer district commissioner, your water commissioner are all at the bottom. And people are not going to go that far. That’s why we went from even-year-only to spreading it out because people were dropping off. The state used to do that.

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