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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Election reform in focus as 3 candidates challenge incumbent Secretary of State

Three candidates will take on Republican incumbent Secretary of State Kim Wyman in the Aug. 4 primary, and as COVID-19 forces the country to rethink voting systems, election reform is on candidates’ minds.

Rep. Gael Tarleton, D-Ballard, is running with a focus on cybersecurity and elections. Gentry Lange, a real estate broker active in voting rights issues who lists his party preference as the Progressive Party, is running to restore the secret ballot. Social studies teacher Ed Minger, Independent, is running with the hopes that changing the rules of elections will create a more representative government.

The three candidates disagree on whether Washington’s vote-by-mail is still the best system moving forward, citing safety, privacy and lack of voter access and turnout.

Wyman has received criticism for her handling of President Donald Trump’s persistent attacks on a vote-by-mail system. Some, like Tarleton, say she is not doing enough to stand up for Washington. Others say she is not doing enough to support her own party.

Wyman said her job is to inspire confidence in voters and that speaking on every social issue or every tweet from Trump doesn’t serve voters.

“I don’t really have time to play politics with our elections,” she said.

Tarleton disagreed, saying every elected official in Washington should stand up for the right of every person to vote, regardless of party alignment.

“That is an impartial issue and a fairness issue,” she said. “It is not a partisan issue.”

Although no candidate agrees with Trump’s criticisms of Washington’s system, they all agree there is more work to be done to ensure elections are fair and safe.

Lange argued that vote-by-mail can suppress last-minute voters and voters without permanent addresses. He also pointed to the large number of votes that get rejected because of issues like a nonmatching signature.

In Spokane County’s March 10 election, 5,032 votes were rejected for various reasons, and 159,104 ballots were accepted, according to county election data.

He said he wants to expand the number of polling sites to at least 10 per county. Lange, who said he has spent decades as a voting rights activist, said he got in the race to start the conversation surrounding election reform.

Wyman argued the state has enough protections in place for voters to ensure that their ballot is counted. If it’s not, she said they are communicated with throughout the process about why it wasn’t.

“If it’s not counted, there’s a reason it wasn’t counted,” she said.

Wyman said the two biggest reasons why a ballot would get rejected are a late postmark or a signature that is either missing or does not match the signature on file. Counties have worked hard to reduce those numbers by educating voters and contacting voters early, she added.

Wyman also pointed to her office’s work ensuring communities such as Native American or homeless voters across the state have equal access to voting. Some of that work includes using a point on a map instead of an address to indicate where to drop off ballots or partnering with community centers to serve as locations to pick up or drop off ballots.

Tarleton, who has served in the state House of Representatives since 2012, said Wyman’s efforts to increase voter access have not necessarily translated into increased voter turnout.

“Everything about voting by mail is supposed to expand voter access, not necessarily voter participation,” Tarleton said.

Tarleton said that, if elected, she would work with counties to develop ways to make more people aware of how to register and how to vote in the state’s vote-by-mail system. She also wants to create a new approach to working with voters who might come to Washington from a different country.

For Minger, Washington’s vote-by-mail system is accessible, but he said there are places it could use some work, also citing the number of votes not counted because of a lack of signature or being mailed too late.

Minger is a social studies teacher who got into the race after the pandemic left him wanting to make a change. He said he supported Lange’s plan to have 10 polling places per county. He said he might consider enlisting middle and high school students to help count votes as a way for them to learn and get involved in voting early, he said.

One of the biggest concerns with vote-by-mail is its security. For Tarleton, Wyman has not done enough to ensure Washington’s system is safe.

After the 2016 Russian interference of U.S. elections, Tarleton said she waited for the Secretary of State’s office to reshape election cybersecurity. Tarleton said Wyman was not developing a future emergency preparedness plan to ensure the state’s elections are safe from fraud or tampering.

Tarleton said she has worked to pass legislation that deems election systems critical infrastructure and establishes requirements for testing election systems.

“The secretary of state’s office did not take the lead and did not help,” she said.

Wyman said her office has taken steps in the past four years to create county election continuity of operations plans, which required counties to create a plan to continue executing elections in the case of an emergency. She also mentioned the Washington State Elections Security Operations Center, which provides security services to state and county elections officials.

Both of these plans have translated well into preparing for a pandemic, Wyman said.

Lange argued vote-by-mail goes against the country’s longstanding tradition of a secret ballot, a system where voting is completely anonymous, often done in person behind a closed curtain. Vote-by-mail allows for more people than just the voter to interfere with a ballot, something a secret ballot does not do, Lange said.

He said he is not against a vote-by-mail system but instead would support a hybrid system, in which voters can choose how to vote.

“People love it, so you got to make it better,” Lange said.

He said the state should move toward a system that focuses more on a walk-in, drop-off absentee system rather than a vote-by-mail system.

Wyman said Washington still has voting centers to allow for people to vote in person, if they need. Drop boxes are also located throughout each county to allow for people to drop off their ballots at a secure location rather than simply mailing it.

Voter centers allow for people with disabilities or people who need to register on Election Day or people who need translating assistance to come in person and vote, she said.

Minger, who has made it a goal to run without purchasing advertising, wants to rethink how elections are done completely, by eliminating advertising and switching to an approval voting system. An approval voting system allows a voter to “approve” any number of candidates. The candidate with the most approvals wins.

This method, he argues, would allow more centrists to be put in office who would empathize with both sides of the political spectrum.

“My only goal is to make our representative government more representative for everybody, for all people,” Minger said.

All candidates will take part in a debate organized by the League of Women Voters next week. KSPS Public Television will air the debate on Thursday. The candidates will answer questions from Spokane journalists as well as the League of Women Voters.

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.