Who Do You Trust To Run Elections?

Who Do You Trust To Run Elections?
When Washington state voters mark their ballots, usually in the comfort of their homes now, they want to be assured elections will be run smoothly and fairly. That's one responsibility of the Washington Secretary of State. Incumbent Republican Kim Wyman main challenger Democrat Tina Podlodowski. Photo: usvoterfoundation.org

The race for a seemingly sleepy office in Washington state is threatening to turn into a war of words, and has drawn the interest of a prominent national fundraising consortium which is backing the challenger and advocating for unspecified election reforms. That would be EMILY’s List, which champions progressive female candidates, now including the challenger to incumbent Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman, Democrat Tina Podlodowski. The Secretary of State’s duties include oversight of state elections, administration of ballot measures, certification of election results, and promoting voter registration.

Four-fifths of those eligible in Washington are registered to vote. This is slightly better than the national average of 76 percent, as reported by Pew Trusts in 2012.

Wyman Touts Impartiality, Elections Expertise

Thurston County elections director for almost a decade and later county auditor, incumbent Wyman is accenting her nonpartisan approach to carrying out the office’s duties. She is the only Republican holding a statewide office in Washington, Oregon, and California.

Wyman and her campaign staff told Lens her big value-add is firm impartiality and experience in running elections, something they say is essential to meeting the job’s responsibilities. Her campaign manager Andrew Bell told Lens that elections “require the guiding hand” of someone who has managed them before. “Kim is the only who’s done that,” he added.

Podlodowski Cites Private Sector Experience

Podlodowski is a former Microsoft manager who served one term on the Seattle City Council in the 1990s. In 2014 she served as police reform lead in the Office of Policy and Innovation for Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. Podlodowski was also a senior vice-president at public relations firm Porter Novelli, and executive director of Lifelong AIDS Alliance.

Podlodowski told Lens her private sector experience gives her “a broader sense of how to build a (voting) system that works and is cost-effective” compared to Wyman. She is pushing to increase the number of registered voters in the state as well as improve voter turnout, and sees automatic voter registration, preregistration for 16-17 year olds, and the Washington Voting Rights Act as ways to increase registration and voter participation. She’s also interested in making it easier for people with felony convictions to re-register to vote.

Scuffling Underway

Podlodowski and Wyman have already scuffled over differences in managing elections. Early last month Podlodowski called on Wyman to cancel the state’s presidential primaries. She argued it would only benefit Republican candidate Donald Trump because the state Democrats use the caucus system instead of the primary to determine which candidate gets delegates. As a result the primaries were “a giveaway to the Republican Party” by allowing them to meet potential supporters and donors, she said.

“To me, if you’re spending taxpayer dollars, $11.5 million, it shouldn’t benefit political parties,” Podlodowski said.

Her Facebook charges drew this rebuttal from State Rep. Matt Manweller (R-13):

How hilarious. Sec Wyman tried to move primary UP to make us relevant but Dem Party Chair blocked the move with his veto. Nice try.

Wyman said Podlodowski’s call for cancelling the primaries “shows how little she knows of the office” because only the state legislature has the authority to do so. “It was looking at policy through a political lens rather than what’s good for voters,” she added.

Wyman should have called for cancelling the primaries when the legislature was in session, said Podlodowski.

Last year Wyman advocated the primaries be held in March instead of May, but the Presidential Primary Committee voted against the proposal in August, with Democratic members opposed to it.

Many Washington Democratic voters, it turns out, felt the party’s caucuses held March 26 continued far too long, and disenfranchised many participants including the elderly and those with children, who could not stay into the wee hours as debate dragged. Party officials are now considering a switch back to the primary.

While Podlodowski believes her priorities and demeanor will ensure fair elections, Alex Hays, former President of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, views her comments that Wyman played to the GOP by not cancelling the party’s primary as openly partisan rhetoric. He said if the same approach was used while overseeing elections, it would “threaten confidence in government.” Knowing an election was held fairly “is vital to anyone’s (politician’s) legitimacy,” he added.

Elections Integrity A Sore Spot, Still

Fair elections were a sore spot for Washington Republicans in the hotly-contested 2004 gubernatorial contest. Democrat Christine Gregoire beat Republican Dino Rossi by 129 votes out of 2.8 million, but only in a second recount after initial returns and a first recount declared Rossi the winner by a thin margin. During the recount process there were questions raised about how King County managed the vote count, as additional and previously uncounted Gregoire votes continued to be discovered.

Podlodowski Ahead so Far In Fundraising

Normally Wyman would be “unbeatable” this election due to her popularity, says Susan Hutchison. Hutchison is the chairman of the Washington State Republican Party. The previous Secretary of State Sam Reed won his elections in 2004 and 2008 by 51 and 58 percent respectively.

However, Hutchison believes Podlodowski’s ability to self-finance her campaign has turned the race into a toss-up. “Money is how you get your message out,” she said. According to the most recent reports filed to date with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, Wyman has raised $178,392 and spent $94,499. Podlodowski has raised $259,754 and spent $104,003.

The 2016 Wild Card Factor

With presumptive Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton facing presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump for U.S. President and a host of high-interest ballot measures expected in Washington – including on a carbon tax, and a higher minimum wage, Republicans face a potential double-whammy. The party’s presidential nominee could dampen GOP turnout, and both the Trump-Clinton contest and statewide issue votes could boost voting by Democrats. At the same time, though, Washington voters have continued to elect the Republican candidate as Secretary of State for 51 years.

Wyman said it’s too hard to predict the effects of this years election day menu on her race; right now she’s just focused on campaigning. Still, she admitted, “it’s difficult for any Republican in Washington to run in an election year.”

Marc Siegel, of the Washington State Democrats, wrote in an email they’re confident “incredible enthusiasm on the Democratic side” to defeat Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump will help Podlodowski. “We’ve seen in the past when turnout is high, Democrats win,” he wrote.

In 2012, 56 percent of Washington voters supported U.S. President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign and put Democrat Jay Inslee into the Washington Governor’s Mansion over GOP challenger Rob McKenna by a margin of three percent. Voter turnout was 81.25 percent.

The Secretary of State race has also drawn libertarian candidate Tim Turner. Turner told Lens he’s running “to challenge this notion that we just have these two choices and that’s’ all there is.” One change he says he’d like to advance as Secretary of State is making it easier for third-party and independent candidates to run by promoting more training opportunities through the state on the required procedures for seeking office, and how to comply with campaign finance laws.

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