Election Integrity: Washington Secretary of State fighting misinformation about elections

As the primary election in August approaches, signs warning that ballot drop boxes are "under surveillance" have been showing up around the Puget Sound region. 

The surveillance, conducted by a group called "WA Citizens United to Secure Ballot Boxes," was first reported in King County over the weekend.

Washington Secretary of State Hobbs said the tactic "bothers" him, and questions what it could mean for other ballot drop-off sites, like a USPS mailbox.

"Are they going to survey that as well? So, it’s very discouraging that they’re doing this. I think it’s a form of voter suppression, I think it can be, or intimidation. So, I really wish this group would simply stop that," said Hobbs.

The Republican-affiliated project prompted election officials to call on the King County Sheriff’s Office to investigate. Though the tactic technically isn’t illegal, Nick Brown, U.S. Attorney for Western District of Washington, said voter intimidation is a federal crime.

In a statement, Brown wrote, "We recognize and revere the First Amendment right to free speech and political debate.  But there is a time when protected speech turns into acts of intimidation or threats of violence.  We will work with our law enforcement partners to investigate threats of violence, hate crimes, and any effort to intimidate voters or those tasked with ensuring free and fair elections in our state."

Intimidating or threatening another person to discourage them from voting is a felony under federal law, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Federal law also prohibits:

  • Bribing voters
  • Buying and selling votes
  • Impersonating voters
  • Altering vote tallies
  • Stuffing ballot boxes
  • Marking ballots for voters against their will or input

Mathew Patrick Thomas, chair of King County Republicans, said he is disbanding the party’s election integrity committee and said some members were involved in printing and posting the signs without his knowledge. Thomas said the party would fully cooperate with King County Elections and would take legal action if anyone misappropriated the party’s name for "any unsanctioned or ill-intentioned use."

Hobbs said measures like what the Republican activists are doing only fuels the fire of misinformation about local and national elections.

King County Elections calls for removals of unauthorized signs at ballot drop boxes

After a group of Republican activists organized surveillance of ballot drop boxes in King County, elections officials are calling on the sheriff's office to investigate.

"We can’t sit idly by anymore. We can’t allow a false narrative. Maybe it’s the form of a tweet or a Facebook post. We can’t allow it to become a retweet, a meme and next thing you know, you believe in this false narrative that’s happening. We have to lean forward, we have to call it out," said Hobbs.

Hobbs hosted a discussion on Thursday with researchers from University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public. The two offices work together to debunk conspiracies about how elections are operated in the state. 

"Hopefully in the process, the public will be educated on how elections work here in Washington because they really are transparent and secure and safe," said Hobbs.

He said they are striking down misinformation about the capability of hacking ballot tabulation machines.

"It can’t be done," said Hobbs. "Why is that? Because, first of all, it’s air-gapped. It’s not connected to the internet in any way shape or form…and Bluetooth is disabled."

When doubters question transparency and observations of the ballot tabulation process, Hobbs said everyone has an open invitation to see it for themselves.

"You can go to any county auditor’s office and look at the process. And in fact, some county auditors actively reach out to parties to ensure that one person from each party comes in there and observes the process. You can observe the ballots coming in and the signature matching," said Hobbs.

The Secretary of State also mentioned each county election office is audited before and after every election.

UW researchers Mike Caulfield and Rachel Moran are also part of Election Integrity Partnership, an organization formed before the 2020 election to examine election rumors and misinformation. 

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"One thing that we know is people’s statistical intuitions are often quite poor. So, they don’t really have a baseline of expectations. Rumors form around the unexplained, so if they’re looking at something and they don’t understand why it would happen that way, that’s the place where rumors tend to have the most fertile ground," said Caulfield.

As part of their research, Caulfield said they study trends about false narratives and work proactively to inform the public in an effort to reduce confusion. 

"Misinformation struggles to get a foothold when people already have good answers to what they are seeing. Misinformation thrives on the unexpected. So, setting expectations if we know the sorts of things that are likely to happen and letting people know what we expect helps," said Caulfield. "We want to prepare people for what to expect beforehand to reduce the amount of confusion that they have when they’re seeing relatively expected things."

A statewide poll found most voters trust the mail-in ballot system that Washington has offered for several years. Hobbs hopes continued efforts promoting accurate election information will reach those voters who are doubtful.

"Around 30%of the people don’t trust elections because of what’s happened in the last five years. And so now we have to up our game of informing the public," said Hobbs.

In the continued efforts of informing the public, the Secretary of State will be launching a new voter outreach and education program. The office is also working with the state superintendent regarding opportunities for more Civics programs in schools. 

Anyone who believes they are a victim of voter intimidation is asked to contact District Election Officer Seth Wilkinson at 206-553-7973, and leave a message with the Civil Rights complaint hotline.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story included a statement from Sec. Hobbs indicating "under surveillance" signs were discovered in Thurston County. The Thurston County Auditor’s Office told FOX13 Friday that was not the case. We immediately contacted the WA Sec. of State’s office, and a spokesperson confirmed Thurston County’s statement: "After the segment aired, it was brought to our attention that there was internal miscommunication about which counties have reported surveillance signs near drop boxes," said Charlie Boisner, Director of External Affairs. "After further review, King Co is the only county that has confirmed instances of signs near ballot drop boxes. Thurston Co. has not reported any signs in the county."