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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘I refuse to live in fear’: Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman reflects on threats and rebuilding trust in elections

Secretary of State Kim Wyman gestures as she speaks after members of Washington’s Electoral College cast their 12 votes for President-elect Joe Biden at the State Capitol in Olympia on Dec. 14.  (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

On the morning of Jan. 6, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman was texting with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

The Republican Spokane congresswoman planned to object to the certification of Electoral College results that would make President Joe Biden’s victory official. She told Wyman, a fellow Republican and the state’s top election official, she had concerns because of the tens of millions of Americans who believe there was widespread fraud in November’s election.

Wyman, who had spent months responding to misinformation about the election, offered to address whatever concerns McMorris Rodgers had and told her to reach out.

But before they could talk – and while two-thirds of House Republicans prepared to object to the election results – thousands of former President Donald Trump’s supporters marched from a rally outside the White House, where Trump repeated his baseless claim that the election was rigged, and stormed the Capitol.

The violence, which left five people dead and dozens of police officers injured, was the culmination of a monthslong campaign by Trump and his allies to sow distrust in the U.S. voting system and eventually claim the election was stolen from him through a vast conspiracy. GOP lawmakers, cowed by Trump’s threats to unseat disloyal Republicans, largely gave credence to his election-rigging claims even as they outperformed expectations in their own races.

As the rioters ransacked the Capitol, McMorris Rodgers had a change of heart and announced she would no longer object to the mostly symbolic count of Electoral College results. She was one of just two House Republicans to change course while the majority of GOP lawmakers heeded Trump’s demand to be “tough” and contest the results.

The eclectic mob included far-right hate groups and self-styled militias that forced their way past overwhelmed police, along with Trump fans who strolled casually through Statuary Hall like tourists, capturing memories with selfie sticks. They were united by a belief in conspiracy theories that has fueled threats against lawmakers and election workers and aligned, intentionally or not, with disinformation efforts by the nation’s foreign adversaries.

In an interview Friday, Wyman said election officials and Republican Party leaders have a lot of work ahead of them to restore trust in the nation’s election system.

“When we catch our breath, I think we will start focusing on rebuilding voter confidence in our elections,” she said. “Unfortunately, all of the misinformation and disinformation and out-and-out falsehoods and lies have really resonated with a swath of the electorate, and I think we have to spend some time trying to address those issues.”

While Wyman and her counterparts across the country have said the November election went remarkably well, a recent Crosscut/Elway poll found 61% of Washington GOP voters had little or no confidence their ballots were counted fairly and accurately. Nationwide, multiple surveys have found only about a quarter of Republicans trust the election results.

Election experts say a small amount of voter fraud occurs in virtually every election, but safeguards exist to catch fraudulent votes and prosecute those behind them. Republican election officials, Trump-appointed judges and former Attorney General Bill Barr, a Trump loyalist, have all said there is no evidence of widespread fraud that could meaningfully affect the outcome of November’s election.

Wyman said she wrestles with the need to address good-faith concerns about election security while not giving oxygen to efforts to sow mistrust.

“You have to acknowledge that those people have concerns, because you want them to have confidence in the election,” Wyman said. “But at the same time, there’s also those within those groups who are still intentionally spreading misinformation and lies to that very end – to undermine confidence, to make people believe that the elected leaders are not legitimate.”

“Those folks have a much bigger agenda,” she added. “To undermine democracy at its foundation.”

As the head of the nonprofit National Vote at Home Institute, Amber McReynolds spent much of 2020 helping election officials around the U.S. expand vote-by-mail systems to ensure voters could cast their ballots safely amid the coronavirus pandemic. As Trump and his allies railed against mail-in voting as ripe for fraud, the former elections director for Denver became a target.

In emails and social media posts, people enraged by her work to expand mail-in voting threatened to shoot or hang McReynolds, some mentioning her two young children. She hired off-duty police officers to guard her house.

Last fall, her daughter’s fourth-grade class researched the election to make a voting guide to send home to their families. When McReynolds picked her daughter up after school, the 9-year-old asked her, “Mom, why do people want to kill you?”

Election workers across the country have faced death threats, including Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Washington Elections Director Lori Augino, whose home address was posted online. The FBI later said Iran was behind the website, which featured photos of Augino and other election officials with crosshairs over their faces and countdown clocks labeled, “Your days are numbered.”

Wyman said that website – which was titled “enemies of the people” in an apparent allusion to a favorite Trump smear of the media – is an example of a worrying synergy between Trump acolytes and America’s adversaries.

“Misinformation campaigns from foreign entities are designed to pit Americans against each other, to create mistrust and doubt in our democratic institutions,” she said. “All of this is real, and it’s scary because our foreign adversaries like Russia, like Iran, like North Korea have figured out that asymmetric warfare is a much more efficient way to attack the United States than any kind of traditional war.”

Wyman also has received threats for her role in the usually mundane work of administering elections. Two weeks ago, she said, she removed the novelty “vote” license plate she had on her car for 20 years after law enforcement officials advised it could make her a target.

“It’s scary, and it makes me mad,” Wyman said. “I refuse to live in fear.”

Once inside the Capitol, militia members communicated to hunt down and detain lawmakers based on Trump’s unfounded allegations, according to court documents filed Jan. 19.

“You are executing citizen’s arrest,” one member said. “Arrest this assembly, we have probable cause for acts of treason, election fraud.”

Tammy Patrick, a senior elections adviser at the Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan foundation that supports voting systems, said many of the lawmakers who fled the pro-Trump mob bear some responsibility for what happened.

“The reason 70 million people don’t believe the outcome of the election is because they’ve been told lies,” Patrick said. “They’ve been lied to by the (former) president, they’ve been lied to by his supporters, and they’ve been lied to by individuals who continue to perpetuate mis- and disinformation that has been proven wrong by election officials doing recounts, by thousands of observers watching the process, by courts all across the country.”

Before reversing course after the insurrection at the Capitol, McMorris Rodgers cited two debunked allegations of wrongdoing and told The Spokesman-Review she saw her planned objection to the Electoral College results as “a moment for me to amplify the voices of millions of Americans who do not have trust and confidence in our election process.”

Patrick – who oversaw elections for a decade in Maricopa County, home to more than half of Arizona’s voters – said elected representatives have a responsibility to look for answers and tell the truth, not just to trumpet their constituents’ concerns.

“If these same people believed the earth is flat, that doesn’t mean a member of Congress needs to go out and say the earth is flat,” Patrick said. “Part of the problem is that people have felt that if they don’t continue to spread the lies and misinformation, it would jeopardize them politically.”

“They thought that there were no negative repercussions,” she added, “until the chickens came home to roost. I don’t think any of them ever thought that they would be sheltering in place for five hours in the nation’s capital while these people ran riotous, and that their own lives would be jeopardized. Had they breached and found a bunch of cowering people under their desk, they would not have known who was a Republican and who was a Democrat.”

When the House impeached Trump on Jan. 13 for inciting the insurrection, several Republicans expressed remorse for their failure to speak out against the misinformation sooner.

Rep. Dan Newhouse of Central Washington, one of 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment, said on the House floor he and other GOP lawmakers were “responsible for not speaking out sooner, before the president misinformed and inflamed a violent mob who tore down the American flag and brutally beat Capitol Police officers.”

“When the dust starts to settle,” Wyman said, Republican leaders need to take a hard look at their own roles in spreading misinformation and listen to election officials if they have real concerns about the nation’s voting system.

“I hope that the Jan. 6 events really have caused people to push pause and to reflect on what it means to be a Republican and what we want to stand for in the future,” she said. “It would have been more helpful if legislators, if they were concerned about something, had picked up the phone and called their local or state election official and actually asked the tough questions.”

Patrick said she worries the misinformation around the 2020 election will have lasting effects on the nation’s voting system, including losing some of the election workers whose critical roles go unnoticed at best, and at worst subject them to threats.

“Being an election official or a poll worker is a difficult job under any circumstance,” she said. “But when you couple the stress of the job, the importance and responsibility, the low pay and the lack of resources with death threats not just to yourself but to your family, I have real concern over what this means for the future of election administration.”

The violence of Jan. 6 is also a stain on a nation that has held itself up as a bastion of democracy and an example of good governance for other countries to follow.

“We are going to have a lot of work to do,” Patrick said. “Not only here domestically, but those images being portrayed around the globe to both our allies and our enemies. That is going to damage the growth of democracy and the health of democracy globally for years to come, and that is truly devastating.”

If there’s a silver lining, Patrick said, it’s that Americans have seen what happens when politicians actively undermine trust in an election.

“I think we all now understand that democracy is fragile, and we cannot take it for granted.”