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Election security a key issue in the WA secretary of state race

Voters will decide whether to keep Kim Wyman's appointed replacement, Steve Hobbs — or choose from seven other primary candidates.

By Joseph O'Sullivan / Crosscut.com

When Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman departed last fall for a post in the Biden administration, she left a long track record of overseeing elections across an increasingly polarized era.

Wyman, who was the only Republican statewide elected official in Washington, also left a key office that during her tenure became a crucial outpost in defending elections from both domestic and foreign attacks.

Now, Washington voters will decide whether to keep her appointed replacement, Steve Hobbs — a former state senator from Snohomish County and a moderate Democrat — or choose someone else.

The Aug. 2 eight-way primary contest gives voters a broad choice of candidates from across the political spectrum and with different experiences. The two top vote getters will advance to the November general election. The winner will serve the two years remaining in Wyman’s term before the regularly scheduled election in 2024.

Challenging Hobbs is Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, whose job includes overseeing elections in Washington’s second-biggest county. She is running as an independent.

There are a trio of conservative candidates actively fundraising: Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, former Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, and Tamborine Borrelli, a former Bernie Sanders supporter turned conservative who has blasted the state, alleging election fraud. Also on the ballot are Republican Bob Hagglund, independent Kurtis Engle and Democrat Marquez Tiggs, none of whom has reported raising the type of money needed to win a statewide campaign.

The secretary of state manages a hodgepodge of responsibilities. The office handles the registration of businesses and nonprofit organizations, and oversees the Washington State Library, as well as the state archives. The position is also second in line to succeed the governor, behind the lieutenant governor.

The office has become a central node for fending off incursions into the state’s election systems — such as attempts by Russian hackers in 2016 — and for implementing new voter-access laws, like Washington’s same-day voter registration.

In response to the Russian hacking attempts, Wyman boosted cooperation with federal officials and established an arrangement that allows cybersecurity experts with the Washington Air National Guard to assist in warding off hackers.

Appointed by Inslee last fall, Hobbs — who came to the post without election experience — is from Lake Stevens and is the first person of color to hold the office. Democrats can be sensitive that Republicans have won the office for decades, and Hobbs, who once described himself as a “radical centrist,” plays up his moderate reputation.

A lieutenant colonel in the Washington State National Guard, he likewise stresses his military work as a qualification.

“You need somebody who has national security expertise and is trusted on both sides of the aisle,” Hobbs, 52, said. 

Position of strength

Hobbs has made election security and rebutting mis- and disinformation key parts of his work. He persuaded lawmakers and Inslee to double the office’s cybersecurity team to eight people, he said, and is working to strengthen the work Wyman did on cybersecurity cooperation with other agencies.

A previous candidate for lieutenant governor and a veteran of competitive state senate races, Hobbs has more than $375,000 on hand for his campaign, according to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, by far the most in the race. He enjoys the backing of, among others, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Auditor Pat McCarthy.

Asked why he’s a better choice than Anderson, who has long experience administering elections, Hobbs stressed his military experience: “We need someone who understands the threats. … I already have a security clearance.”

Anderson has been Pierce County auditor since 2009 and emphasizes that she is not running as a Democrat or Republican.

“They need a candidate who has experience, who’s tested and trusted, and who doesn't have any political strings attached,” said Anderson.

She praised Wyman’s work building relationships and said she would seek to strengthen transparency and trust in elections by performing what are known as risk-limiting audits statewide.

Anderson, 57, also supports an effort to make the secretary of state’s office nonpartisan, a proposal that Wyman had endorsed.

Anderson has raised about $158,000, and has endorsements from elections officials on both sides of the aisle, like Spokane County Auditor Vicki Dalton (a Democrat) and Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey (a Republican).

Voters “need a candidate who has experience, who’s tested and trusted, and who doesn't have any political strings attached,” she said.

 

Conservative candidates

Wagoner, the state senator from Sedro Woolley, touts his previous mayorship of that city and his 23-year career in the U.S. Navy, and said he could be a check and balance against Democratic rule in Washington: “We're essentially a one-party state right now.”

This year, Wagoner sponsored legislation intended to boost voter confidence in the system. His proposal would have given the Washington State Patrol authority to make checks of some voter signatures on ballots and then compare them against existing signatures. It also would have waived the cost of a government-issued identification card for anyone earning below 200% of the federal poverty level.

Asked whether he thought there was fraud in Washington’s 2020 elections, Wagoner said that “if you just look at the numbers of votes, it would be very, very hard to imagine that much fraud to flip an election.”

But “I think it's also important to remember we focus on those big races ... but there's hundreds of really important races at the local level,” he said, that sometimes come down to a handful of votes.

The senator would also seek to establish an investigative arm of the Secretary of State’s Office that can help local officials when questions or concerns arise.

Wagoner has snagged endorsements from a chunk of the Republican Party establishment, including the King County Republican Party, state Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, and the two GOP secretaries of state who preceded Wyman: Sam Reed and Ralph Munro. As of last week, he had raised about $36,000 for the race.

Also running is Mark Miloscia, a former longtime state lawmaker — he served both in the House and Senate — with a unique political career. A Catholic who started as a Democrat and later became a Republican, Miloscia lost his Federal Way-area Senate seat in 2018’s blue wave. Now, he’s the executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, a Christian advocacy organization.

Miloscia,  who has raised about $58,000, emphasized his years of sitting on the legislative committees that oversee elections and his work at the Legislature trying to get lawmakers focused on accountability.

“My message is pretty simple: It's all about accountability and integrity,” said Miloscia, adding that he would establish quality and fraud units around the state for elections.

After the 2020 election, Republican candidate Loren Culp claimed election fraud in his loss to Inslee by nearly 550,000 votes. Culp sued Wyman over alleged fraud, but withdrew the lawsuit in early 2021, after his attorney faced the threat of sanctions for making meritless claims.

Asked about Culp’s claim that election fraud prevented a GOP victory, Miloscia said that some fraud always happens, but it would be difficult to imagine fraud on such a large scale. “Just from a 50,000-foot view, his margin he lost by was tremendously huge,” he said.

He pledged to both guard against fraud, a conservative priority, and investigate allegations of voter suppression.

Another candidate in the race has embraced claims of widespread fraud. Tamborine Borrelli got into politics as a supporter of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders during his 2016 presidential bid as a Democrat.

Borrelli wrote in an email that she became disenchanted after believing that Sanders — a socialist who ran as an outsider against the Democratic establishment — lost the nomination to eventual nominee Hillary Clinton that year because of fraud. Borrelli has since moved to the right, and this year filed her candidacy as an America First Republican.

Currently, Borrelli, 51, heads a nonprofit organization, Washington Election Integrity Coalition United. The group last autumn launched a legal action against Gov. Jay Inslee, alleging that the state Department of Licensing actively works to register noncitizens to vote.

In January, a commissioner with the state Supreme Court dismissed the filing, writing that among other things, the “Petitioner offers no competent evidence of voter fraud based on noncitizen voter registration.” Since then, the Attorney General’s Office has filed a complaint with the state bar association against the coalition’s attorney for making a frivolous claim.

Borrelli, who lives on an animal-sanctuary farm in Yelm in Thurston County, remains undaunted.

“It is the job of the Secretary of State to ensure Washington elections are transparent to its voters, secure from foreign AND domestic threats and to restore the confidence in our electorate by making our elections publicly verified,” she wrote. Borrelli has raised about $39,000 for her campaign.


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