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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

State House passes bill to exempt certain election security information from public records disclosure

The Washington Capitol building is seen on the last day of the 60-day legislative session, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Olympia, Wash.  (Rachel La Corte)

OLYMPIA – A bill that would exempt certain election security information from public records disclosures passed the state House of Representatives Wednesday.

After an election that brought up questions of security, the bill aims to keep certain election procedures and plans of continuity unavailable to the public. Sponsor Rep. Laurie Dolan, D-Olympia, called it “an election integrity issue.”

Election security information and contingency plans should not be provided “as a road map” to the bad actors who want to harm elections, Dolan said.

“We need to secure our elections from bad actors in order to have truthworthy results,” she said.

The bill passed 61-37, with many Republicans saying they oppose exempting more from the Public Records Act, which requires all state and local governmental entities to make public records available to the public. The bill exempts the following:

  • continuity of operations plans for elections.
  • security audits.
  • security risk assessments.
  • security test results that relate to physical security or cybersecurity of election operations or infrastructure.

The legislation would still allow the public to access information on security breaches or audits about those breaches.

“If there is a breach, the public will know,” said Rep. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle.

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said the bill is narrow in scope and only applies to security measures used to protect election software and assessments. Washington election officials began thinking a lot more about the security of their systems after the 2016 election hack, Dalton said. Washington was one of a number of states that Russian hackers targeted.

Since then, the Secretary of State’s office and county auditors have worked quickly to improve their security protocols. Part of that process is conducting security audits and analysis.

“Those particular reports need to remain confidential,” Dalton said.

Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, said the state needs to have both trust and transparency, something she doesn’t think the bill addresses. She said with this bill, the state is moving away from transparency and the public won’t have as much trust in its government.

Other Republicans agreed. Rep. Rob Chase, of Liberty Lake, said he was “very concerned” with the direction the Legislature was taking with this bill. Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said this bill offers a “false sense of security,” which can be the “biggest risk of all.”

Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, said it’s important to look closely at risk assessment and security protocols with elections. He voted yes on the floor, although admitted the bill might still need some work.

“Giving out too much information can actually jeopardize our elections and increase the likelihood of fraud,” he said.

Rep. Matt Boehnke, R-Kennewick, who supported the bill, said cybersecurity needs to be a top priority “now more than ever.”

Election systems have vulnerabilities, and the state needs real solutions, such as this bill, he said.

“This is a fight about trust – trust in our government, trust in our elected leaders,” he said.

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.