OLYMPIA — Washington's chief elections official on Wednesday urged the Legislature to approve a bill that she said would make the election system more secure.
"The foundation of a healthy democracy is fair, secure and accessible voting systems," Secretary of State Kim Wyman said at a press conference. "I'm proud that Washington has a long history of providing accurate and secure elections because we balance access and security well."
She said House Bill 2647 and its companion bill, Senate Bill 6412, would take several steps to further "safeguard our processes," including:
-- Removing electronic methods of ballot return for military and overseas voters. Wyman said intelligence experts including the Washington National Guard agree that email, fax, and other electronic ballot return methods "expose elections infrastructure to serious risk."
-- Making knowingly destroying or failing to deliver a voted ballot a felony, and permitting law enforcement to make arrests in those cases. Wyman said her office has seen reports in other states of campaigns, candidates and third-party groups collecting absentee ballots, a practice sometimes known as "ballot harvesting." Current Washington law does not provide assurances to voters that their ballots will be counted if they give them to someone they don't know, Wyman said.
-- Appropriating $1.8 million so Washington can tap $8.6 million in federal matching funds to improve elections security. "To stay ahead of the curve with election security, state and local election officials need adequate funding to keep pace with changing technology and cyber-attack tactics," she said. Congress last December approved $425 million in grants, but they require a 20 percent match in state funds.
"The cyber-security threats to our election system are real, they are targeted and we must provide our county auditors, election directors, and state and local election administrators the resources they need to build resilient systems to protect, defend, respond, and recover from attacks from threat actors across Washington," she said.
In 2016, Russian agents targeted election systems in all 50 states, according to a report last year by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee. The report did not find evidence that hackers changed any votes, but it concluded that "Russian cyber-actors were in a position to delete or change voter data" in the Illinois voter database.
Wyman, a Republican who has served as Secretary of State since 2013, is running for re-election this year. It would be her third four-year term. Voters have elected Republicans to the post since 1964.
State Rep. Gael Tarleton, a Seattle Democrat, is running against Wyman.
"What we need to be paying attention to is not the threats that we had [in 2016]. It's the threats that are coming at us," Tarleton said.
"I know that [Wyman] introduced a bill today. It covers a lot of different grounds. It seems to focus a whole lot on the procedural things going on in the way a person fills out and signs a ballot. For me, I really wish it had focused on how are we going to train and prepare our local county auditors to understand when they are seeing something that poses a real threat to the election as it is being conducted."
Tarleton said she has introduced bills since 2018 to combat foreign interference in U.S. elections and is trying to get one passed during this year's 60-day session.
Washington state uses mail-in ballots, which are considered more secure than electronic or other voting systems that produce results quicker.
"Remote" is how Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, described the chances of the Senate approving the bill that Wyman requested.
"We've worked real hard on access to democracy and opening up the process and I fear this is sort of tainted with voter suppression, frankly. A lot of it looks to me like a solution looking for a problem," he said.
Wyman said the bill would protect against potential "ballot tampering," but Hunt said the measure would end people going out to "cure ballots." He said that involves getting a list of people who have not voted, going to their houses and asking to deliver their ballots for them.
"I think the ballot curing here works very well. I haven't seen any major problems with it. Again, that is something that happens more in communities of color. I think the result would be to lower the turnout by people of color who, for whatever reason, have not sent in their ballot but have it sitting on their counter," Hunt said.