A competent Secretary of State is worth their weight in gold. The ones that do their job well can outlast the administration they started with, but those who fall short can cost a state their reputation and millions of dollars in legal fees. It is not a position to be held by the lazy, the careless, or the irresponsible. It’s definitely not a job for folks sensitive to criticism.
In Washington state, the primary responsibility of the Secretary of State is to serve as “Keeper Of The Seal”. While that description sounds like it came straight out of a YA fantasy novel, the actual duty itself is considerably less glamorous. They need to ensure that the seal of the state of Washington is only used for official acts signed by the Governor and Legislature. In addition to keeping the integrity of the state seal, the SOS is in charge of registering corporations and limited partnerships as well as regulating charities, trusts, and commercial fundraisers. Perhaps most importantly, the WA Secretary of State is the top state-level election official; they set the election schedules, verify petition signatures, put out the state election guides, maintain the state voter registration database, and certify the election results after individual counties have canvassed their respective ballots. The annual budget for the WA SOS office is over $25.2 million, and 39 county auditors and over 4.5 million registered voters in a Vote By Mail state depend on the SOS office to run seamlessly.
Under SOS Kim Wyman, Washington has become a pioneer in Automatic Voter Registration (AVR), all mail balloting, and election cyber security. What makes Wyman an anomaly: she’s a Republican in the increasingly liberal Pacific Northwest. A Democrat hasn’t been elected secretary of state in Washington since the legendary Vic Meyers in the late 1950s. Predictably, this has driven the Democratic Party crazy for decades, and a considerable amount of time and money has been spent attempting to get a Democrat in the office.
Despite the best efforts of the Democrats in Washington State, Kim Wyman has proven virtually impossible to beat since she was elected in 2012 over Kristina Drew. Even the 2016 election of Governor Jay Inslee failed to make much of a dent in Wyman’s share of votes. Why? Overall, Secretary Wyman does a very good job when it comes to election oversight. Washington scores very high on the Elections Performance Index when it comes to automatic voter registration, convenience of absentee voting, and security of election related databases/ballot tabulation systems. While turnout isn’t quite as high as neighboring Oregon, it has steadily improved from 2012 to 2018. Wyman has had remarkably few missteps while in office; the rollout of the new state election website had a few well-publicized glitches involving reporting of results, but that had more to do with the company that built the site than an error by the election office. (Also, just about every newly designed state election website is going to have some growing pains during the first real test of the system.)
This year, state representative Gael Tarleton will be vying for Wyman’s office. Unlike Wyman’s previous challengers, Tarleton has a cybersecurity background and was a former defense analyst for the Pentagon. She understands the need for increased election security funding and isn’t shy about suggesting that Wyman hasn’t done enough to shield Washington from foreign cyber attacks. Additionally, Tarleton has a strong base in Washington’s 36th Legislative District – Seattle and King County already trend farther to the left than the rest of the state, and King County is home to about one third of the state’s population. In theory, this should bode well for Tarleton. The Cook Political Report has rated the race a Toss Up.
Here’s why I disagree: While King County may lean farther left, most of the other 38 counties in Washington have been gradually trending center-right. Wyman still has considerable Republican support and has managed to retain GOP goodwill without becoming an ardent Trump supporter or alienating most of the Democrats she works with in Olympia. She’s made Washington a better place to vote, especially for voters in the rural counties. Yes, there are metrics where the Election Performance Index could be improved, but are the moderate Democrats and unaffiliated voters outside of Seattle willing to make “perfect” the enemy of the “good-enough”? My guess is that even in another blue wave-type election, enough voters will maintain the status quo and vote for Wyman, not just in the primary, but for the general-as long as there are no major technical/security issues in the upcoming primary for Tarleton to use against Wyman. My rating: Lean R.