OLYMPIA — The security, transparency and misinformation surrounding the state's election system are all top of mind for candidates hoping to be Washington's next secretary of state.
The race has drawn eight candidates hoping to fill the spot left by former secretary Kim Wyman last year. Wyman left to join the Biden administration, leaving Gov. Jay Inslee to appoint former state Sen. Steve Hobbs to fill her spot. The winner of this year's election will serve the remainder of Wyman's term, which ends in 2024.
Inslee's appointment of Hobbs marked the first time since 1964 that a Republican is not holding that office.
This primary, Hobbs will face seven challengers.
The candidates include Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, who is running with no party preference; Republican state Sen. Keith Wagoner; former Republican and Democratic state legislator Mark Miloscia; Republican Bob Hagglund, a Republican who works as a data scientist with United Health; Democrat Marquez Tiggs; Tamborine Borrelli, who identifies with the "America First (R)" party; and Kurtis Engle, who lists his affiliation as the "Union" party.
The top two candidates will face each other in the November elections.
The candidates with the most donation money as of Friday are Hobbs, with more than $386,000, and Anderson, with almost $150,000. The third candidate by donations is Miloscia, who has almost $53,700.
Experience working in elections
The secretary of state's role includes archiving government records and providing information and access to the business community about corporations and charities. One of its biggest roles, however, is serving as the state's head of elections.
Hobbs received some criticism, especially from county auditors, for not having enough experience in election administration.
Hobbs said he thinks his background in cybersecurity and his current role as secretary of state make him the best candidate for the job. The role is different from the auditor in that he does more oversight, reviews and certifications, whereas auditors run elections, he said.
He said the secretary of state needs to have more knowledge on cyberthreats and combating misinformation now.
"I'm the only candidate that actually has the experience at this level because the secretary of state role has evolved," he said.
Wagoner had a similar response, pointing to his leadership experience.
"It's not a super auditor position," he said. "It's a leadership position that leads across a whole bunch of different departments."
When asked what she could do better if elected, Anderson said "pretty much everything." She pointed to her experience in preserving public records, registering licenses, managing archives and working closely with each county's election officials.
"This isn't something that I'm dabbling in," Anderson said. "This is something that I do."
Anderson is running as a nonpartisan candidate because she does not feel the job needs any "unnecessary conflict by belonging to a political party." The work is challenging enough, she added.
Addressing election misinformation
Following the 2020 election, misinformation surrounding election systems and widespread fraud have drawn concerns for most of the candidates.
When asked about the baseless claims regarding widespread fraud in the 2020 election, most said they did not think that there was fraud that could have overturned the election in favor of former President Donald Trump or Republican gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp.
Hobbs, Tiggs, Engle and Anderson all said there was not widespread fraud.
Wagoner and Hagglund both said there is always some instances of fraud but not enough to overturn the results as some candidates' supporters have said.
Miloscia said there is always fraud in the system, but did not say whether he thought there was enough to overturn an election. Instead, he said the secretary of state needs to do a better job at investigating "holes in the system" to prevent fraud in the first place.
Borrelli wrote in an email that there were a number of concerns during the 2020 election that could have led to widespread fraud, including "unexplainable vote flipping," noncitizens who were registered to vote without their knowledge and security breaches of voter data.
Borrelli is the director of the Washington Election Integrity Coalition United, which has sued several counties alleging voter fraud in the 2020 election. The group has a number of lawsuits pending and a number that were dropped or dismissed.
The group and its attorney was recently ordered to pay more than $28,000 by the state Supreme Court for suing Inslee on meritless claims about widespread voter fraud, according to the Seattle Times.
According to a press release from the group, they most recently have filed a petition in Franklin County under the Public Records Act seeking election records in the 2020 general election.
Most candidates acknowledged there should be better communication with the public about what happens with their ballot.
"We have taken elections for granted, but the public doesn't really know what goes on behind the scenes," Hobbs said.
Since becoming secretary of state, Hobbs said he has worked to get more money in the office's budget to create a division dealing with information integrity. That division works to inform the public on what happens with their ballot.
He said his office must also continue to push back against misinformation that might occur surrounding elections.
Anderson said there is skepticism and a lack of trust in elections, but many people who have concerns are concerned with national news or what's happening in other states.
"The closer you get to home, the more people say that our systems are OK," she said.
Miloscia said the people's trust and confidence in the country's elections system is at "an all-time low."
He said there needs to be a focus on continuous improvement and fixing issues within the election system that are not producing good results. He pointed to improving the audit system, the election observer system and cleaning up voter rolls.
"That's how you lose the trust in voters," Miloscia said. "When the voters feel like you're not fixing things, or you're not getting good results, trust goes down."
Wagoner agreed, saying he wants the secretary of state to be focused on constant improvement, "sort of like updating your computer." He pointed to updating voter rolls and routine audits as a way to do that.
"I think doing a better job is how you build back confidence in the system," he said.
Increasing transparency, security of election systems
To address those concerns, most candidates said they wanted to increase transparency and awareness of how the state's election system works.
Anderson said often when she explains to people with concerns that there are checks and balances and securities in place, it helps them understand. There are some technical things she would like to do, however, to increase transparency and security.
One idea is conducting a risk limiting audit for state measures or races. All counties currently conduct random post-election audits that compare paper ballots with machine results, but there are not any similar statewide audits right now.
That means that counties are often each auditing different races the day after the election.
"Who's auditing in a comprehensive, statistically relevant way a statewide race, like a gubernatorial race?" she said.
Anderson's idea would take statistically valid samples from each county for statewide races and include the public in the process.
Anderson also wants to create a nonpartisan election observer corps that would be staffed by nonpartisan volunteers that are trained by the secretary of state. They would then observe election operations and review voter registration records statewide.
If elected, Miloscia's plans include establishing fraud and audit divisions in every county and the secretary of state office, doing mandatory random audits for counties and precincts; and redesigning and implementing new standards for the state's election observer program.
Hagglund said the way to fight misinformation is to be open and transparent. He said his background in data science and consulting would help with this, if elected.
"That's really what it comes down to," he said. "We have to reveal everything."
Borrelli said she wants to clean voter rolls and educate voters on the chain of custody of their ballot.
"I would fight misinformation with verifiable truth of every way our current system is not transparent, secure or publicly verified and how we can change that," she said.
The security of the state's elections from bad actors is another issue concerning many of the candidates.
With his background in the National Guard, Hobbs made cybersecurity a priority when he was appointed by Inslee.
He said he has put more money to double the cybersecurity staff and improve the existing relationships with cyberunits in the National Guard. Hobbs said he also has backed up VoteWA — the state's voter database — in the cloud as opposed to just a hard drive to improve security of the voting systems.
Wagoner said he would like to help county auditors update voter rolls that are outdated and do routine spot audits across the state.
Hagglund said in his current role for United Health, he deals with confidential data and knows how to keep it secure. He said if elected, he would work more on making sure parts of the state's elections system, such as tabulation, are not connected to the internet so they remain secure.
Other issues, candidates
Tiggs said he is running to provide a diverse pool of candidates because representation matters and diversity in the candidates matters.
"People want to see that," he said. "Voters don't want to keep seeing the same people run for these types of positions."
His top issues include expanding voter access and decreasing voter suppression of people of color.
Engle is running as a member of the Union party, which he said he did because he is "extremely dissatisfied" with what the Republicans are doing and he wanted to be in a party that is neither Democratic nor Republican.
He said he is running to keep Washington voters informed about the threat of China to Washington.
Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.