Elections offices in Spokane, Pierce and King counties were evacuated Wednesday after election workers found white powder in envelopes. In Spokane, police said the substance turned out to be fentanyl.
In a prepared statement, Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs called the incident an act of terrorism.
“The safety of staff and observers is paramount as elections workers across the state open envelopes and count each voter’s ballot,” Hobbs said Wednesday, the day after Election Day. “These incidents underscore the critical need for stronger protections for all election workers.”
Since the deadly anthrax-by-mail attacks of 2001, workers in certain sectors have remained on edge over suspicious powders sent or delivered to them. The rise in aggression toward election workers in the wake of then-President Donald Trump’s unfounded claim that the 2020 election was rigged has only heightened the tension.
In Spokane County, an election worker discovered a suspicious substance and a note in an envelope Wednesday morning. The substance found in Spokane County tested positive for fentanyl, according to the Spokane Police Department.
Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said the ballot counting was immediately halted and called off for the rest of Wednesday.
An employee discovered the substance around 10:15 a.m., Dalton said. Spokane police and fire personnel arrived and seized the envelope after the employee informed her manager, who evacuated the office.
After initial evaluation, emergency personnel cleared elections workers to return to the office, Dalton said. Most staff, however, had already been sent home. The next release of vote tallies won’t happen until 5 p.m. Thursday.
The employee who discovered it followed protocol and did not extract anything further from the envelope, Dalton noted. She had not experienced any symptoms of exposure as of early Wednesday afternoon.
Dalton said it was the first time in her tenure with the Spokane County Elections Office that the vote count had been interrupted by an evacuation. She expressed disappointment, but said that their work would continue Thursday.
“Our role here is to make sure democracy happens,” Dalton said.
This is not the first time in 2023 that elections officials in the state have had to evacuate their offices due to a similar threat. During the state’s Aug. 1 primary, King County and Okanogan County election officials received suspicious substances in envelopes.
The envelope and letter received by King County Elections officials were turned over to the United States Postal Inspection Service, which performed an analysis that detected trace amounts of fentanyl. The substance found in the Okanogan County envelope was determined to be unharmful.
S-R reporter Ellen Dennis contributed to this report.