By Erica C. Barnett
The Secretary of State has historically been a largely administrative position; the primary duties of the office are to oversee and certify elections, manage the state’s physical and digital archives, and register corporations and nonprofits. In recent years, though—perhaps you’ve noticed—the mundane job of overseeing elections has become fiercely contested ground.
Despite Washington’s blue-state status, we’re still susceptible to disinformation and misinformation campaigns that threaten to erode voters’ trust in the voting system and election outcomes. Cyberattacks are becoming more aggressive and sophisticated, forcing the secretary of state’s office to keep up with evolving technology, and even benign changes, like moving local races to even-year elections and implementing alternative voting systems like ranked-choice voting, require a level of technical knowledge unheard of even 20 years ago.
In other words, it’s a good time to pay attention to who’s running for secretary of state.
Incumbent Steve Hobbs, a longtime state legislator and moderate Democrat appointed to the job by Gov. Jay Inslee last year, says his military background (he’s a lieutenant colonel in the Washington Army National Guard), on-the-job experience, and enthusiasm for innovation has earned him a full term; if elected, he would be the first Democrat elected the position in more than 60 years. Challenger Julie Anderson, the Pierce County auditor, says her years of experience as a local election official makes her a better fit; she’s running without a party label for a position she believes should be above partisan politics.
PubliCola spoke to both candidates for secretary of state earlier this month.
PubliCola (ECB): You were appointed to this job a year ago and don’t have any prior experience overseeing an elections office, which is something your opponent has brought up on the campaign trail. What kind of learning curve did you have, and do you think your experience so far qualifies you for this position?
Steve Hobbs: (SH): There was really no learning curve—hardly any. Because of my leadership experience from being in the military and managing large organizations, plus 15 years in the state legislature, serving the National Security Agency, being a public affairs officer, and having graduated from the various Department of Defense schools that study strategic threats and information warfare, it was easy to step into the job. The only thing I had to learn a little bit about was the other functions of state government. I knew about corporations, charities, and nonprofits, because I interacted with them before. But I hadn’t interacted a lot with [the] state legacy [division], which is basically our history of our state. So that was really exciting, kind of diving into there and seeing if we can take it in a new direction and talk to different people that affected the history of our state.
“When you go to the state level, you’re overseeing different counties and assisting in the process of elections. We’re doing the certification. We’re assisting with the outreach. And on top of that, the position of Secretary of State has evolved [to include] the security of our elections and combating misinformation, and that’s something that [my opponent] Julie [Anderson] does not have.”
We have state library services in our state institutions—our prisons and our state hospitals. So I wanted to know, can we use this facility and the people in it as a way to help with rehabilitation and help prepare those who are incarcerated for life outside. And so we’re looking at things like increasing the number of people [working] in those libraries, and providing an opportunity for the incarcerated to learn skills to tell their story. So for example, we are looking at doing a prison podcast very similar to “Ear Hustle” in the California penal system, I would like to start a pilot project in Purdy [the women’s prison in Gig Harbor], because I don’t think there is a women’s prison podcast.
And then I would like to bring in other items to the library’s besides movies and books and music. I’m a big nerd. I don’t hide it. I’ve got strong ties to the tabletop gaming industry here in the state of Washington, and I’d like to have a games library [in prisons], and I would like to see if we can have therapy sessions in there. There’s this nonprofit called Game to Grow. They use [role-playing games] as a form of therapy for kids with autism and developmental disabilities, and they were talking about doing this with veterans for PTSD. Maybe we can do that in our state institutions. Why not? If it’s going to help people, let’s try to help people with it. So yeah, I’m really excited about this. And we got a bunch of new books, because some of the books are really old.
ECB: Your opponent says she has more experience than you as an election administrator. How do you respond to that, and can you give me an example of something you’ve learned on the job?
SH: It’s kind of apples and oranges when you go to the state level, because you’re not running an election, you’re overseeing different counties and assisting in the process of elections. We’re doing the certification. We’re assisting with the outreach. And on top of that, the position of Secretary of State has evolved [to include] the security of our elections and combating misinformation, and that’s something that Julie does not have.
This year alone, we had to face three very sophisticated disinformation campaigns and a cyber threat, and you don’t get that at [the county] level. And you have to maneuver with the legislature to get your budgets and policies passed. So I understand she does have the experience at the county level that I don’t have, but she doesn’t have the experience that I have at the statewide level and at the experience of combating these outside threats that are threatening our elections.
ECB: What have you done or will you do to address the kind direct misinformation or disinformation campaigns that now routinely occur during elections?
SH: We have three ways to attack it. Number one is just reacting to a misinformation campaign the best we can—reaching out to our partners, reaching out on social media platforms, to correct the record. Two is a public service campaign, or information campaign, educating the voters about the process of elections. We have done such an awesome job, both county auditors and secretaries of state across the United States, telling people hey, don’t forget to vote.
What we have done a bad job on is talking about what happens before you get the ballot, and after you get the ballot and you submit it. Simple things like, hey, did you know that every signature is checked? Did you know that you can actually go to the election center in any county office auditor’s office, and you can see the process, you can see the ballots coming in, you can see the balance being counted? Did you know the tabulation machines that actually count the ballots are not connected to the internet, and you can’t hack into them? The average citizen doesn’t know about that. And because of that, these false narratives have been able to take hold because there’s nothing to counter it.
And then the other part is educating young people before they become voting age. A lot of them are sophisticated, and that’s great, because they can identify disinformation better than we can, but we trying to look at different ways to engage them. People my age and older will typically retweet or reshare Facebook posts without taking the time to find out, who is this person? Is this message real?
We have launched our Vote with Confidence campaign, which is informing the public about how elections are run [through ads on radio, TV and social media]. It’s all part of the effort to inform the voters this is going to take this is long term because 35 percent of Washingtonians have doubts about the election, according to a KING 5 poll. That’s a big hill to climb.
ECB: As you know, there are racial and other disparities in which ballots get rejected. Are there better ways to track ballots or inform voters when their ballots have been rejected so their votes can be counted?
SH: The only time we see curing–getting people to sign their ballot or re-signing it if the signature has changed—is usually during close elections, where both sides’ campaigns and usually the parties are involved, and they’re getting people out there to sign those forms by going door to door. There’s got to be a better way.
“I have Republican endorsements and Democratic endorsements. And I’ve been endorsed by the Association of Washington Business and by the Washington State Labor Council. So I love how I’m being attacked for being a partisan, but I’ve operated in a bipartisan manner.”
We have to do two things. One is we have to study why this is happening. And the other thing is, maybe we can lean forward and start doing some things now. And so we are right now in the process [of developing a system]—it will not be operational until next year—which will text the voter that their ballot has been rejected. Because right now, you can either go online to find out, or you’re going to get a letter in the mail, which is highly inefficient, and maybe a phone call. And a lot of this happens after election night at 8pm. So wouldn’t it be nice to get a text message right away, the moment your ballot is rejected, because you’ve forgotten to sign the ballot, or you didn’t sign because English is not your first language?
ECB: What have you done to improve language access in other areas, such as informing voters about elections before they vote?
SH: Language access is definitely an issue, because the only way you get voter guides out there [in languages other than English] is, you have to reach a minimum threshold in a particular county. So for example, Skagit County has a large Hispanic population, but because they didn’t reach the population threshold, you don’t have the voters’ guide going out there in Spanish, mostly because the county commissioners are not supportive.
What I would like to do that is a combination of things. One is trying to get more money in the legislature to provide funding to these counties so they can put out those guides, because a lot of it is driven by money. The other thing we’ve done is, I’ve created a department to do more voter outreach and education. I’m mirroring what is happening in King County under [Elections Director] Julie Wise, which is the trusted messenger program, where we hire people from a community that knows the language, that knows the culture, that can help us do the outreach. Now, I can’t hire enough people to do this. So we also have to team up with organizations in various communities.
ECB: Your opponent is running as a nonpartisan and has said the secretary of state should be a nonpartisan office. How do you respond to that, and what does it mean to you to run as a Democrat for this position? And should this position even be elected?
SH: I do think it should be elected. In terms of partisan or nonpartisan, I don’t think it matters too much. I think at this particular time, people trust Democrats more because what happened on January 6. But the thing is, the only way to change this office to nonpartisan is to pass a bill in the legislature, and they’re not going to do that the because it’s a two-party system.
But the other thing is, I work across the aisle, because that is my nature. I have Republican endorsements and Democratic endorsements. And I’ve been endorsed by the Association of Washington Business and by the Washington State Labor Council. So I love how I’m being attacked for being a partisan, but I’ve operated in a bipartisan manner. And I’m not going to step away from the fact that I’m a Democrat. I’m pro-choice, pro-labor. I believe that climate change is happening, and we should do something about it. And that’s who I am. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. This office had three partisan Republicans in it. Before Kim Wyman, Sam Reid and Ralph Monroe. And people trust them because they were able to work across the aisle.
ECB: As the person overseeing the state archives, what are you doing to preserve and update the state’s physical archives and maintain the state’s digital archives, which are growing all the time?
SH: It was very shortly into getting the appointment that I visited [almost] all of our archives buildings across the state. And one thing I ran into is, we are short on staff—there was a huge cut during the Great Recession, and unfortunately, the previous secretaries were not able to restore the number of people. So I’m trying to get more people in there to increase the speed of digitizing these records, which is very important, and giving them the equipment to do it. We don’t just hold the archives of the state government, but also county governments—every marriage that has been done, every death certificate, every land deal that’s recorded at the county level is sent to our archives for it to be stored.
The new documents are obviously digital. But we have a backlog of a paper ones [that haven’t been digitized]. I remember going into the archives up in Bellingham, and I pulled up this old leather-bound book that was that was put together before statehood, and I’m opening it up, I’m going through pages and pages, and I come across this talking about the marriage of two people—how a pig and a cow and some other things were exchanged as part of the process, That has not been scanned. And I look, I’m a nerd, I’m a history nerd, and this is part of our history. We should scan that so everyone can see it and you don’t have to drive all the way to Bellingham to look at something like that.