By Erica C. Barnett
The Secretary of State has historically been a mostly 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 entire voting system. Cyberattacks are becoming more aggressive and sophisticated, forcing the secretary of state’s office to keep up with evolving technology, and even benign changes to elections, like moving local races to even-year elections and implementing ranked-choice voting or other alternative systems, 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 last year, says his military background (he’s a lieutenant colonel in the Washington Army National Guard), on-the-job education, 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): Running as a nonpartisan candidate has been a big part of your campaign. What risk do you see in the fact that this position is technically partisan, and if you’re elected, how will your lack of partisanship be reflected in the way you run the office?
Julie Anderson (JA): A good portion of the reason I’m running as a nonpartisan is personal. We’ve had two notable secretaries of state who did the same thing I’m doing—coming up through the ranks [of election officials] to hold the office. And they were both Republicans, and I believe did a good job and made decisions with integrity. So the obvious question is, what’s the problem, Anderson? The problem is, as Kim [Wyman] saw on her way out, one of her last decisions as secretary was to support a proposal to make the office nonpartisan. So clearly, she saw that partisanship was a distraction because hyper-polarization and partisanship has become more extreme and more influential in how decisions are made.
I see the same thing now. I have been a nonpartisan auditor in Pierce County for nearly 13 years. Our voters made it that way by a change to our city charter because they believed that their chief election administrator should be nonpartisan, and that has really benefited me and my ability to earn trust with both political parties. And it certainly has freed me of awkward or stressful situations where I’m expected to participate in party politics.
“What I’m excited about, and where my election experience comes into play, is that we need to start looking at alternatives to signatures. Young people haven’t had the same opportunities to perfect a signature though repetition, so they tend to sign things different ways. It’s also important for adults with disabilities.”
ECB: Do you think this position should ultimately be elected or appointed?
JA: I think we should look toward other international models of appointment, but let me be quick to say: Not the kind of political appointments we currently are experiencing, but one step at a time. My goal is to hold the office as a nonpartisan, get some breathing room, do a good job, build trust, and if the state legislature would like to start a conversation about a constitutional amendment to create a appointment process, I’m open to that and they would find a willing partner in me.
ECB: You’ve criticized the incumbent for a lack of experience in election administration. Can you give me an example of a scenario where your own experience running elections for Pierce County would make you better prepared than him?
JA: Having an understanding of the impact and capacity of local county administrators when you’re thinking of new programs and initiatives, understanding the constraints and capacity of county elections officials, and having a good rapport with them, is extremely important.
I also understand the technical systems that we use. Votewa.gov [the state’s voter information portal] is a very powerful tool that I was involved in creating—I was on the steering committee building that, creating the parameters and the minimum deliverables in that whole IT project and helping it go online.
Another dimension of practical experience is public records. I’ve been managing documents, indexing them, and making them publicly accessible for 13 years as the county auditor and it’s something I feel very passionate about. The Washington state archives were the second in the world to have a digital archive program, but since then, we’ve failed to keep up the pace of records. Local government and state government have created a huge number of records that are digital-native—what are we doing to prepare for the myriad of different types of formats and ingesting those in a n efficient way at the highest volume and turning around and indexing in those in a way that they’re accessible to the public?
All of the records that were created during the latest redistricting process, those GIS files and Census files were highly interactive. That’s a public record that is going to reside in the state archives. Is it being preserved as a flat file or is it interactive and preserved so that it’s most useful to the public? Those are the kind of questions I want to dive into, in addition to playing catchup on the paper files that local government keeps sending up the food chain.
We’ve also got regional archives, in addition to the new state library that is being built. Those regional archives and the Sand Point National Archives all have buildings that are less than adequate for what they’re doing, especially when you’re looking about paper records. I want to do an assessment of all those facilities to make sure that we are able to preserves properly all the historic records that we have.
ECB: If you’re elected, what would you do to combat disinformation campaigns by foreign and partisan actors? Have you run into disinformation campaigns at Pierce County, and if so, how did you combat them?
JA: It’s a problem across the state, and we’re not exempt from it. I think that everything that is happening in battleground states rolls like a tidal wave over into Washington. We already work with federal agencies to help them detect election misinformation and disinformation on election nights.
I would improve civic education, and there are some great groups under the superintendent of public instruction that are working hard on that. I would join forces with them and find out what their best practices are. I would be fully engaged with the social studies teachers in high school, as well as community groups who have a role in civic education. I would also lean into organizations that are focused on critical thinking and media literacy.
ECB: What cybersecurity system improvements need to be made to ensure that all of the information under the purview of the Secretary of State is protected from data breaches or similar threats?
There have been no breaches that I’m aware of, and certainly no breaches of voting systems in Washington state. They have been scanned, yes, have they been probed, they have been subjected to denial of service attacks. We work with our Homeland Security partners and all the cyber information security officers in each county to continuously monitor our firewalls, and Homeland Security notifies us instantaneously if there’s a vulnerability and we get on it and patch it.
What I would do is pay more attention to county governments, which doesn’t necessarily mean the election offices. Elections offices depend on county information and IT staff to support their security. We do things like absolutely use two-factor authentication, absolutely make sure we’re monitoring data, but when it comes to the desktops that we use, when it comes to our physical security, that’s all at the county level.
Penetration testing is the thing that you do to test your system security, and right now Homeland Security has about an 18-month waiting period to make sure you get pen tested. And so I’m going got do an audit to see which counties have been pen tested and get all the counties on a schedule to do pen testing. I also want to make sure every county is doing an air gap test so we know that the system is not only connected to the internet, it can’t be probed or penetrated by a cellular device or by a Wi-Fi device.
ECB: What would you do to reduce racial disparities in ballot rejections? Are there better ways to track ballots or inform voters when their ballots have been rejected?
JA: I suspect that there are other things in elections that have the same disparate impacts, whether it is completing a registration or filing for office. I’m super happy that the legislature provided funding to the University of Washington to start collecting election data so that we can be looking at this holistically and geographically. We need to make sure that when we’re sending out those cure notices [so voters can make sure an improperly rejected ballot is counted], or we’re sending instructions to voters to ensure that their vote is counted, that they’re easily understandable. I would do usability testing, which is kind of like a focus group where you get randomly selected participants and see how they interact with your materials and test whether it is easily understood and actionable.
What I’m excited about, and where my election experience comes into play, is that we need to start looking at alternatives to signatures. Young people haven’t had the same opportunities to perfect a signature though repetition, so they tend to sign things different ways. It’s also important for adults with disabilities. I don’t have a solution, but I know that the commercial sector has found solutions in this digital age. It’s not going to replace signatures. We’re going to do what we always have done, which is create alternatives so that voters can choose what’s best for them and allow it to migrate over time.
“Consolidating elections would focus voters, but there are a lot of downsides that really concern me. I can tell you that every county auditor has to go begging and scraping to their county council to fund their programs, and county councils that are economically distressed are going to say, ‘You’re only funding elections every other year—why should I fund a year-round program?'”
ECB: What would you do to increase voter turnout, especially in non-Presidential election years?
JA: Voter turnout is very cyclical, and it’s the very lowest in local elections following a Presidential election. There’s not as much money being spent, but also there’s a lack of engagement and stickiness between the electorate and local government, I really want to help locate governments get local voters more engaged in their local elections. The secretary of state’s office can make it easier for [local elections offices] by helping get into this cadence of boosting people’s awareness of those local off-year elections. That can help, but it’s going to require everybody grabbing an oar and pulling in the same direction.
ECB: Can you give me an example of what would that look like in practice, and how you would go beyond standard get-out-the-vote campaigns?
JA: I like the idea of pooling philanthropy dollars with government dollars and then granting them out through the secretary of state’s office, in a very neutral fashion, to local organizations and individuals who know their community the best and will use those funds for turnout. The strategies are going to be very different among different populations. It’s the local community members who know what’s going to be most effective. Our job would be making sure that our outreach campaigns are politically neutral and are using best practices and are low-barrier.
ECB: Would moving all local elections to even years improve turnout and engagement, as advocates for eliminating odd-year elections have argued?
JA: Consolidating elections would focus voters, but there are a lot of downsides that really concern me. I can tell you that every county auditor has to go begging and scraping to their county council to fund their programs, and county councils that are economically distressed are going to say, “You’re only funding elections every other year—why should I fund a year-round program?” The other problem is that the way that we keep voters engaged is by constantly mailing things to voters, and if they don’t respond or keep getting returned, we can get them back in active status. If we’re only voting every two years, given that 10 percent of the population moves every year, we’re going to be in a world of trouble.