OLYMPIA – Washington voters will choose between a Democrat and a nonpartisan candidate for secretary of state this November, bringing back a question asked many times before by candidates, voters and secretaries alike: Should the state’s chief elections official be nonpartisan?
Julie Anderson, a nonpartisan who has served as Pierce County’s auditor since 2009, clinched the second-place spot Tuesday, having received 12.85% of the vote. She finished behind the current secretary of state, Steve Hobbs, a Democrat who had a little over 40% of the vote, as of Tuesday.
In Washington’s primary system, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, move on to the general election.
Anderson has focused her campaign more on her experience than her politics.
“I know that my message of nonpartisanship and professionalism and experience in the office resonated with a lot of people,” she told The Spokesman-Review on election night.
The idea of making secretaries of state nonpartisan has been brought up before, and as elections have become even more divisive in recent years, many candidates have spoken in favor of making the change.
Former Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, had offered her support for making the office nonpartisan and said it was a policy change she would push for in her next term. But Wyman left the office last year to take a position in the Biden administration working on elections security.
In a League of Women Voters debate last month, Anderson had similar views, saying she did not think political parties belong in the office that oversees elections.
Hobbs said he wouldn’t try to push a bill through the Legislature as Wyman did to make the position nonpartisan, adding that he isn’t concerned whether the position is partisan or nonpartisan.
“It’s about the person that’s in the office, not the label that’s in there,” Hobbs said.
In the same debate, one of the Republican candidates, Bob Hagglund, said he thought state executive positions should all be partisan or nonpartisan and opposes the idea of making just one of the offices nonpartisan.
But the conversation goes further than the state executive position.
Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, a Democrat, told The Spokesman-Review she thinks both the secretary of state and all the county auditor positions should be nonpartisan.
Any office that is administrative, follows the law with no discretion and does not set policy should be nonpartisan, she said. By that definition, Dalton said the assessor, treasurer and clerk of the court should also be nonpartisan.
“Those offices are there to provide a service,” said Dalton, who has endorsed Anderson. “That should be based on qualifications, not on political ideology.”
Having offices that run elections be nonpartisan could also help reduce the perception that the office is being controlled by one political party or another, she said.
Dalton said Wyman often operated the office in a nonpartisan or bipartisan way, and that’s what she hopes for from the next secretary of state.
With Anderson and Hobbs advancing to the general election, it will mark the first time in 58 years that a non-Republican is elected to the office.
Three Republicans were close to making it through, but all finished with vote counts short of Anderson’s. Keith Wagoner and Hagglund both had about 12% of the vote, with Wagoner just ahead of Hagglund. Mark Miloscia had about 10% of the vote, as of Tuesday.
Before Hobbs was appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee to take over for Wyman, a Republican had served in the office since 1964.
Hagglund and Wagoner both expressed frustration with the vote splitting among three Republican candidates.
Had there been one person a year and a half ago who emerged as the obvious Republican candidate for secretary of state and received backing from the party, Hagglund said the results may have been different.
“Had we sat down in the same room early on, I think it would’ve had an impact on the race,” he said.
On election night, Wagoner said having multiple candidates is not always good for boosting a Republican candidate to the general election.
But Washington State Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich said Wednesday the party doesn’t prefer a “top-down approach” to primaries and wants to let voters decide which Republican candidate should move forward.
“We had three capable individuals who all wanted to run and so they all ran,” he told The Spokesman-Review.
However, Heimlich said the culture within the party and state committee is starting to adapt to the top-two primary system. He pointed to the state party endorsing Tiffany Smiley for the U.S. Senate race early on.
“Voters are tired of people jumping in at the last minute and splitting the vote,” he said.
Heimlich said there likely will be more efforts in the future to endorse early to prevent this situation from happening again.
As of Wednesday, he said, the party did not have a definitive answer on whether it would endorse or recommend either Hobbs or Anderson for the secretary of state’s race this November.
The state committee will meet at the end of the month and likely will decide what it wants to do moving forward, he said.
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