High stakes for Washington secretary of state race with elections under scrutiny

As voters line up early at ballot boxes to drop in their elections for 2020, the office in charge of the election statewide is also on the ballot. 

This year, the stakes for the office of the secretary of state are high, from continued threats of interference abroad to efforts to undermine the results here at home. 

How to respond to the president’s sustained attacks on mail-in voting, fraud and the postal service are where Washington’s two candidates for secretary of state diverge. 

“The cold, hard reality is as secretary of state, I can’t afford to be perceived as political,” said incumbent Kim Wyman, a Republican. “I don’t do the job that way and I’m not going to start now. What I need to do is just counter it with the facts.”

In her role as secretary of state, Wyman has continually countered the false claims of the president, using her platform to appear on local and national news outlets contradicting the de facto leader of her own party. While President Donald Trump tweets about mail-in ballot fraud, Wyman, who leads an all-vote-by-mail state, provides evidence that the fraud rate is extremely low.

But Wyman’s opponent, state Rep. Gael Tarleton, a Democrat, would like to see a more forceful approach to the president.

“This was her response, ‘I’ve invited the president and the attorney general to come to Washington state and observe how we conduct our elections.’ That is not a response to a direct attack on the legitimacy of our elections,” Tarleton said.

Fending off partisan attacks is only part of the job with foreign actors at play. Both candidates say they believe foreign nations are routinely trying to interfere in U.S. elections and undermine voter confidence. Both also say they believe Washington state is one of the safest states in the country for voter and election security. 

“I think our system is as secure as it can be, and President Putin and Russian and other foreign actors are trying desperately to create the impression that the system is not secure,” Tarleton said. 

“If the system is as secure as it can be in the face of all these threats under the current secretary of state, why are you a better choice for Washington voters?” asked Q13 correspondent Simone Del Rosario.

“Because that's the threat today,” Tarleton answered. “Anyone in the military will tell you that what we are fighting is the war today, but we don't anticipate and we don't understand what the risks will be in the future.”

As a former defense intelligence analyst for the Pentagon, Tarleton said she is the right person to face those risks in this elected role. Wyman, meanwhile, has decades of election experience and believes that gives her an edge over Tarleton, who has none.

“That is the differentiator between my opponent and I is having that background, having actually conducted elections at the county level, understanding how they work, makes me better at making policy decisions as secretary of state,” Wyman said. 

Somewhat surprising in a now-blue state, Republicans have held the office of secretary of state in Washington for more than five decades. 

Democrats hope to break that streak by pitching new leadership in Tarleton, a state legislator who championed election security in the house and says expanding voter access would be a top priority. Meanwhile, in vying for a third term, Wyman points to her record in the office modernizing, centralizing and strengthening the state’s election system. 

As voters drop in their ballots this month, their vote will determine who guides the state through the next several elections. For more on the candidates and their pitch to voters, watch the extended interviews.