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Election mail threats prompt new look at protections for 2024

A large sorting machine is the first stop for ballots at the Pierce County Election Center, before workers verify they each contain a valid signature and continue processing them.
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Pierce County Auditor
A large sorting machine is the first stop for ballots at the Pierce County Election Center, before workers verify they each contain a valid signature and continue processing them.

Pierce County Auditor Linda Farmer has a goal.

"We're really hoping to make government boring again," she said. "And that's a good thing – when it's working well, you shouldn't notice that it's there."

Farmer took office in January. Her job is to oversee elections and make sure they run smoothly.

Farmer said that prior to taking office, she knew threats to election workers had been on the rise around the country over the past several years. Two counties in Washington had already received suspicious letters in the mail during the primary election in August.

Pierce County had never experienced a similar incident, Farmer said, and she figured it was inevitable. But she was still shaken up this month after a staffer opened a letter containing a mysterious white powder, as workers and machines processed thousands of ballots in the warehouse-like rooms just doors away.

"It was only a matter of time," Farmer said.

Initial testing showed the powder was baking soda.

Election offices in five other Washington counties, and in several other states – including Oregon, California and Georgia – received suspicious mail in November too. Some of it contained fentanyl, though investigations into the substances and the sources of the letters are ongoing.

No one was hurt in these incidents, but the letters and subsequent evacuations did delay some ballot processing. Pierce County's election center, nestled in a cluster of county offices behind a nearby Costco, was evacuated for two and a half hours.

The latest scares and increasingly visible threats made against election workers across the country have officials and experts looking at how to better prepare.

In Pierce County, Farmer said part of that includes reviewing mail-opening protocols to avoid major disruptions if an incident happens again.

"Our worker was opening mail in a room full of other people, and so a simple thing we can do is to open our mail in an isolated area where if something happens we don't have to shut the rest of the operation down," Farmer said.

Farmer said it also means ensuring that people who are handling mail at the election center wear gloves, and maybe even requiring that they wear face protection.

It's already a federal crime to use the United States Postal Service to send threatening mail, and federal penalties do exist for threatening or harassing election workers and other officials. But experts say that the federal and state governments can also set aside more money to support election centers and officials.

Funding is critical in order to pay staff, upgrade technology, and improve security as election centers face more threats, according to David Becker, director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a national nonprofit aimed at improving trust in elections.

"It's a tiny fraction of many states' overall budget, but it defines who gets to set policy in every election cycle," Becker said, noting that many election centers have been "chronically underfunded" over the years.

Becker said Washington state is a leader in the U.S. for its policies that aim to support local election offices and protect workers from harm.

A grant program run by the Secretary of State's office has offered counties up to $80,000 annually to help pay for security and technology upgrades. And online threats made against election workers are a class C felony in Washington, under a change made by state lawmakers in 2022. That means people convicted of the crime could do years of prison time and pay thousands of dollars in fines. Other class C felonies include third-degree assault, hazing, and witness tampering.

Penalties aren't as serious for threats made against election workers in person or via mail under state laws. But that could change in 2024.

Rep. Mari Leavitt (D-University Place) is sponsoring a bill that would make any threat to an election official a felony.

"It shouldn't matter the methodology of the threat – what should matter is the threat itself," said Leavitt, adding that the bill would also allow election workers to participate in the state's address confidentiality program.

The bill – and others like it – have made progress in the Legislature before, but none have passed yet. Leavitt's bill was considered during the 2023 legislative session, but she said lawmakers ultimately prioritized other issues instead. Still, she said it's top of mind for many now, especially after this year's incidents, and knowing that 2024 is going to draw a lot more attention.

"If that's not a sense of urgency that we have to do something this session, I don't know what is," she said.

For comparison: The last presidential election year, 2020, saw more than 4 million ballots processed across Washington state, when about 84% of registered voters participated in the election. This year, fewer than 2 million ballots were cast – a turnout of about 36% of registered voters.

It's unclear what path lawmakers will ultimately choose once the next session begins in January, but other key legislators agree that the issue of election safety and security has climbed the priority list.

"We need to try to figure out how to address this situation," said Sam Hunt (D-Olympia), who chairs the Senate's state government and elections committee. "We're going to have to try to wrestle with the best way to deal with that – maybe it's felony, maybe it's something else, I don't know."

Meanwhile, local officials are laying more of their own plans. On top of reviewing safety protocols, Farmer and her team are on a mission to improve public trust in elections, by inviting more people to witness the process, explaining how it operates, and telling the stories of the workers who make it happen.

Because she and other election officials agree: without the regular people doing the so-called "boring" work – Democracy won't work either.

Copyright 2023 Northwest News Network. To see more, visit Northwest News Network.

Jeanie Lindsay is a state government reporter for the NW News Network. She previously covered education for The Seattle Times and Indiana Public Broadcasting.