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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It would be arrogant to say we’re ready for anything’: Officials prepare for problems on – and after – Election Day

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, right, holds a mailed ballot given to her by Acting Postmaster John Boone during a press conference in October 2020.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Jim Camden and Ted McDermott The Spokesman-Review

Election Day 2020 approaches with more clouds and controversies than any in recent history.

It arrives Tuesday to a nation that has spent more than half a year fighting a pandemic and its economic fallout. A summer of racial justice protests and counterprotests. Months of questions being raised about ballot trickery and postal service skulduggery. Weeks of warnings that foreign agents are trying to hack the nation’s voting infrastructure. And over the weekend, a presidential pronouncement that the winner might not be known for days or even weeks after Tuesday.

Officials in Washington and Idaho said they are hoping Tuesday’s election runs smoothly – but have made preparations in case it doesn’t.

“Anymore, everything is out of the ordinary – and that has become the ordinary,” Idaho Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck said. “A lot of the things we’re thinking about today weren’t things we would have thought of four years ago.”

Cybersecurity measures for the elections systems have been increased.

Physical safety for voters registering or casting ballots in person has been reviewed and in some places will be enhanced.

Overall voter turnout may reach a record this year. A record number of ballots already has been cast through mail-in voting in Washington and absentee or early poll voting in Idaho. But the largest number of Washington voters typically mails or deposits its ballots in a drop box on Election Day, and Idaho election officials are ready for heavy turnout at the polls.

A new venue

Spokane County is expecting so much demand for last-minute registration and voting that for the first time it will move the city Voter Service Center to the Spokane Arena. Residents who are eligible to vote but not registered can sign up and cast a ballot up to 8 p.m. Tuesday. They can also get replacement ballots or use devices that assist voters with disabilities.

Elections staff will be set up in the Exhibit Hall, and the hallways will allow voters to wait inside while they socially distance.

“There’s quite a bit of space inside,” Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said.

But if the lines get long, they could stretch outside.

The elections office will have nonuniformed security personnel to answer questions and make sure people are complying with COVID-19 requirements. Spokane police will drive past the arena frequently “to keep an eye on things,” Dalton said, but won’t be stationed there.

“Some people might feel intimidated” by uniformed officers, she said.

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said the department will have extra staff on hand as a precaution. He knows law enforcement around the country will be on alert, but so far in the Spokane area “there’s no intelligence of any planned protests.”

The department “almost always” knows of protests, Meidl said. It monitors social media sites where organizers post dates, times and places in order to draw a crowd.

The department has learned from its experiences with demonstrations over the summer, he added.

“We do know, with the kind of protest, we can anticipate the counterprotest as well. We don’t always know what the makeup of the counterprotest will be.”

Meidl’s advice to anyone who wants to protest anything about the campaigns or elections: “We don’t want you bringing firearms to these protests. Come down and celebrate your rights, just don’t bring weapons.”

The ballot counts on Tuesday night may be the beginning, not the end, of election controversies as close races might not be decided for days or even weeks. The presidential race extends at least into mid-December, when the Electoral College meets in all 50 state capitols, and possibly into January if legal challenges don’t produce a clear victor.

Help not wanted

Asked whether there’s high political tension in Bonner County ahead of the election, Brenda Hammond answered with a question of her own: “Is there any place where there isn’t?”

A representative of the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force, which Hammond heads, recently met with Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon, handing him a letter expressing support for police and “trust in the ability of local law enforcement” to deal with potential unrest without “the help of so-called militias.”

Extremism is no stranger to this part of North Idaho, but Hammond said the nature of it has shifted.

Once a home to the Aryan Nations, it now has a more diffuse, less easy to categore movement protesting pandemic-related restrictions and mask mandates, as well as Black Lives Matter protests and rumors of anti-fascist, or antifa, activity.

The result, Hammond said, has been “increased regional tension and activity by the people’s rights groups, militias and other groups that advocate and prepare for taking a stand against the government.”

In late October, the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force sponsored training “to help participants learn how to listen and speak to those with differing opinions and beliefs and engage in civil discourse.”

The aim is to look past the labels, she said, like far right and radical liberal.

“Regardless of how this next election turns out, we need to be able to live together in our own communities. We believe that is a big part of what it means to be an American – and remember when neighbors and friends used to gather together without any consideration of political affiliation.”

In Bonner County, people can go online to watch a livestream of election workers opening ballots, or a separate video feed of the room where ballots are kept. Not the most riveting viewing, but District Court Clerk Mike Rosedale, who is in charge of elections, said it’s a small but unusual measure of added transparency, part of an effort to add “a lot of extra security” to this election.

Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad said the city is preparing for any “challenge to our democratic process.” In June, the city experienced a false report that “antifa rioters” were coming, prompting throngs of armed people to come downtown saying they were going to protect private property and keep the peace.

The vast majority had good intentions, but there were some threats that showed even false rumors can create real risk, he said.

To prepare, the city has increased police patrols “from now to Election Day and beyond.”

“In particular, we intend to have a police officer manning every polling station through the city,” Rognstad said, “and that’s the first time we’ve taken that precaution here.”

The first rule

Election security is like the movie “Fight Club,” Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said: Just as the first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club, the first rule of election security is that you don’t talk much about election security.

But Washington has improved its system to withstand cyber attacks in the past two years with federal grants, assistance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as well as help from the Washington National Guard, which gets some of its part-time soldiers from the ranks of Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing.

“There are active campaigns by our adversaries, both foreign and domestic,” Wyman said.

But the VoteWA system, which created a statewide voter database that can track ballots, has increased security around the system, she said.

“We are confident our system has not had any breaches, has not been compromised in any way and that it is operating and is fully secure,” she said.

Last week, the state scrambled to address an instance of “misinformation” when a private website was reporting a high number of mail-in ballots were being rejected after arriving at county offices. The operators were using information available on the state elections website, but misinterpreting it.

The ballots weren’t rejected but were being held for review of some verification problem, like a missing signature or a signature that didn’t match the file, which can be corrected for 20 days after the election.

While some states are scrambling to make it easier for voters worried about the pandemic to cast ballots by mail, Washington’s mail-in balloting system has been in place for nine years. Spokane and some other counties mailed their ballots ahead of the 18-day requirement; they will count any ballot postmarked by Nov. 3 that arrives up to three weeks afterward.

On election night, the Elections Security Operations Center will be monitoring the 39 counties and the state website that posts the results watched by candidates, campaigns and the public. It wants to make sure no one hacks in and starts changing the results the state broadcasts.

“If you see election results that don’t look right, please contact us,” Wyman said. It may just be an error or “it may be something nefarious happening.”

The results being reported on election night aren’t official, and because ballots counted over the next three weeks can change the outcome, they also aren’t final.

Watching for intimidation

Emily Peters, spokeswoman for the Spokane-based Human Rights Activist Coterie, said that group has been hearing threats of voter intimidation by extremist groups may occur at ballot drop boxes in Spokane, especially in the days just before the election. The group will have volunteers at least 10 feet from the boxes Monday and Tuesday with signs offering to help anyone who feels intimidated.

Their goal is to observe and report any voter intimidation, but if requested they will accompany people to ballot boxes, document any harassment and make video recordings if those who feel intimidated want to press charges.

“We just want to be sure that we’re doing anything that we can,” she said. “And hopefully nothing will happen.”

The Western States Center, a regional group that tracks extremists, is warning of a risk of paramilitary and white nationalist activity around the election, said Kate Bitz, the organization’s Spokane-based program manager.

While it’s important to preserve people’s right to protest and express their opinions, Bitz said, it’s also vital that no one’s right to do so is lost in the process.

“It’s understandable that part of people’s plans might be to take to the streets and express their First Amendment rights,” she said. “Everyone should be able to do that safely and free from fear and harassment.”

Caleb Collier, field coordinator for the John Birch Society and a former Spokane Valley city councilman, said he thinks concern about voter intimidation on Election Day is “overblown and it’s playing into the leftist narrative, to be quite honest.”

Conservatives who do show up to observe the election process “are going just to ensure there’s no interference” in the country’s republican system of government, Collier said. Such interference is a major concern in an election that he expects President Donald Trump to win “by quite a bit,” if it’s conducted fairly, he added.

“Now if the president does win,” Collier said, “I think you’d see a lot of civil unrest, including in cities like Portland, for example.”

Out-of-the-ordinary is the new normal

Houck, the Idaho chief deputy secretary of state, said the threats facing the electoral system are unprecedented – but so are the tools to combat them.

He divides threats to this year’s election into two main categories: physical and cyber.

Like Washington, Idaho has beefed up its elections infrastructure, with a $3.5 million investment to counties for election equipment and more than $3 million to improve the state’s voter registration management system, Houck said.

It also has greater access to classified briefings and information about attempts to attack the election infrastructure.

The secretary of state’s office sees more advanced and sophisticated threats and constantly changing tactics, probing weakness in systems like election-related websites, which could be used to spread disinformation.

“Imagine the magnitude of someone getting on the Secretary of State’s website and saying the election’s been postponed three days,” Houck said.

Manipulating the vote count would be difficult, Houck said, because Idaho, like Washington, uses paper ballots counted on computers not connected to the internet, and with strict protocols.

It would be easier to manipulate voters than the actual vote count, he said, by using social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter to spread disinformation.

Self-fulfilling prophecy?

Among the disinformation that has spread on social media, Houck said, is the notion that “there’s going to be a huge issue at the polls.” Elections officials are concerned this could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s a felony in Idaho to intimidate someone at a polling place or “to try to force that voter to vote a certain way,” Houck said. But the ban on electioneering at polling place extends only in a 100-foot perimeter.

“Outside that 100-foot perimeter, there’s something called the First Amendment and the Second Amendment,” Houck said.

There, he noted, “if someone’s wearing a pistol on their hip and a sign in their hand, that’s not voter intimidation.”

But if that person with a pistol and sign is in the middle of a street, blocking voter access, he said, law enforcement will be called and “counties will be ready to act.”

Although specific information about threats to the coming election are largely classified, recent reports about attempts by Russia and Iran to undermine the election either in the cyber or physical realm should be taken seriously.

“You have to take the perspective that someone’s going to try something,” Houck said. “That’s the only responsible perspective to have. I believe we’re better prepared than we were in the past, and whether that’s good enough, we’ll have to see. It would be arrogant to say we’re ready for anything.”

Lt. Ryan Higgins, a public information officer with the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office, said some local school districts have requested “some bodies” be present to ensure safety and security as the public comes to school sites to vote.

“It’s not for any potential protests or anything,” he said. “It’s more for social security.”

Beyond those requests, deputies will be responding to calls and making sure there are no issues.

Whether anything rises to the level of breaking the law will be up to the deputies.

In Idaho, he noted, people can carry a firearm without a concealed weapons permit, and that right isn’t restricted at polling places.

“If somebody files a complaint that they’re intimated, we’ll investigate that,” Higgins said. “Just because a person is there with a firearm, that doesn’t mean they’re there to intimate anybody.”

Not being prepared ‘would be foolish’

Beyond local and state law enforcement, Washington and Idaho have the ability to call on National Guard forces for extra assistance, although both states are vague about their level of alert.

Karina Shagren, the spokeswoman for Washington National Guard, said the state is aware of what’s happening around the country and “it would be foolish” not to be prepared.

“We can only respond when there is a request,” Shagren said. “It’s like having a disaster plan for the earthquake.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said recently that the Guard has been preparing “for any potential disturbance,” although he wouldn’t go into detail about what that involves.

“I’m very hopeful that the margin of the election is large enough there’s not room for controversy,” he said last week when asked about calling up Guard forces for any problems with the election or its aftermath.