Austin Jenkins | KNKX

Austin Jenkins

Olympia Correspondent

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.

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Despite intense interest in the 2020 election, and a ballot return rate that's already over 60 percent, voter registrations in Washington have lagged this year, compared to four years ago.

According to figures provided by the Secretary of State’s office, 513,000 people registered to vote in Washington prior to the 2016 election. So far this year, this state has seen approximately 440,000 new registrants, a 14 percent drop compared to four years ago. However, the last two months have shown something of a rebound.

In the battleground states of North Carolina and Pennsylvania legal battles have raged over whether postmarked ballots that arrive via mail after Election Day will be counted. In other states, like Wisconsin, it’s already been decided -- they won’t.

Meanwhile in Washington -- a non-battleground state -- ballots that arrive up to 20 days after the election, or by November 23, will still count, so long as they were postmarked on or before Election Day.

That’s been the long-standing rule in Washington going back decades.

State and local election officials in Washington sought to reassure voters Monday that robust security measures are in place to protect against interference with the general election, even as they acknowledged the likelihood that bad actors will try to sow distrust and undermine confidence in the national election results.

Coronavirus cases are spiking. A major election is looming. And Washington’s legislative session is still two months away. But Washington’s beer lobby has a message for top elected officials that apparently can't wait.

State and local election officials in Washington said Thursday that election systems here are secure and haven’t been hacked. Those assurances follow multiple reports in recent days of efforts by foreign actors to interfere with the upcoming national election.

In a year that seems all about the presidential election, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s happening down the ballot. In Washington, all nine statewide elected positions are up this year. But some of the fiercest action, and biggest spending, is happening in state legislative races.

For context, Democrats currently hold strong majorities in both the Washington House (57 to 41) and Senate (28 to 21 -- the 21st is a Democrat who votes with Republicans).

From Clark County to Whatcom County, from Puyallup to the heart of Seattle, only a handful of the 124 legislative contests are fiercely competitive. Some feature one Republican and one Democrat. Others are intra-party contests.

We aren’t going to get to them all. Instead, here’s a quick guide to six of the hottest statehouse contests across the state.

Note: the campaign finance numbers below were current as of October 22. For the latest numbers click here and sort by money raised or spent. 

Washington’s race for governor is a lopsided, yet surprisingly fiery contest this year. It pits incumbent Democrat Jay Inslee against Republican Loren Culp, a first-time candidate. Inslee is seeking a rare third term while Culp is trying to pull off the upset of the century.

For more than half a century, Republicans have had a lock on Washington’s Secretary of State’s office. This year, Democrats hope to end that five decade run by unseating incumbent Kim Wyman who’s seeking a third term.

Democrats feel they have the political winds at their back and an unusually strong challenger in Gael Tarleton, a state lawmaker and former Port of Seattle commissioner who once worked as a defense intelligence analyst for the Pentagon.

Republicans, meanwhile, are counting on a long history of ticket-splitting by Washington voters who might repudiate President Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, but be willing to support a veteran elections official and familiar state Republican further down the ballot.

Outgoing Washington Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib is on unpaid leave attending Jesuit training in California and does not plan to return to his office before his term is up in January, according to his office and the office of Gov. Jay Inslee.

In a statement Tuesday to the public radio Northwest News Network and the Associated Press, the executive director of the lieutenant governor's office, Kristina Brown, said Habib, a Democrat, began his leave on Sept. 1 and notified both Inslee and Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig at that time.

“Give me three terms” might be the motto of Washington’s November election. Gov. Jay Inslee, Secretary of State Kim Wyman and Attorney General Bob Ferguson are all seeking a third, four-year term this year.

Not to be outdone, State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler is going for a sixth round.

Yes, long-term incumbents hoping to go even longer is a definite theme this year.

But the statewide ballot also features some newcomers, some higher office seekers and even a congressman who wants a one-way ticket back to the state Capitol.

Former Washington state Auditor Troy Kelley plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to formally review his federal convictions for possession of stolen funds, filing false tax returns and making false statements.

The move comes after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month denied Kelley’s request for a rehearing of his case by all of the judges on that court. Previously, a three-judge panel rejected Kelley’s appeal seeking to overturn his convictions.

As President Donald Trump intensifies his attacks on the security of vote-by-mail, county auditors and state election officials sought Friday to reassure voters the state of Washington is well prepared to pull off the 2020 vote-by-mail election.

However, those reassurances were also tempered by ongoing concerns about the United States Postal Service’s capacity to deliver and process ballots in a timely manner.

Last May, opponents of Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay home order staged a “Hazardous Liberty” rally on the campus of the Washington Capitol. Guns outnumbered masks as speaker after speaker – mostly Republican officeholders and candidates – decried Inslee’s response to the pandemic as monarchical and an assault on individual freedom.

The sign–and-flag-waving crowd cheered the speakers as they lambasted Inslee. But one speaker in particular seemed to have attained a kind of celebrity status among many in the crowd.   

“I think you know who’s coming, doncha,” boomed the emcee. “No introduction needed: Sheriff Loren Culp.”

It was common through the 1800s for American school children to attend a one-room schoolhouse. In 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Swanson family in rural north Olympia will attend a one-garage schoolhouse.

On a recent morning, Molly Swanson rolled up her garage door and welcomed a visitor into the classroom she and her husband created this summer as a place to educate four of their six children, plus two foster children.

In February, Tiffany Krueger and her business partner Joanna Sather fulfilled their dream of opening a small training gym focused on serving women in the Olympia area. Athena Fitness and Wellness offered large group workout classes, small group training, a Himalayan Salt room, a sauna and even child care.

And then the coronavirus pandemic struck.

“I think it’s like the worst timing ever,” Krueger said in a recent interview.

In early June, as Gov. Jay Inslee was overseeing a phased reopening of the state, his budget office signed a contract with the elite international consulting firm McKinsey & Company to provide access to a “Governor’s Decision Support Tool.” That tool was meant to aid Inslee’s decision-making as he gradually unlocked the economy.

But access to McKinsey’s customized COVID-19 risk tool didn’t come cheap. Under the contract, the state initially agreed to pay for eight weeks of access to McKinsey’s services and proprietary data sets. The cost to taxpayers: $165,000 per week. And that was McKinsey’s government discount rate.

This story is part of an NPR nationwide analysis of states' revenue and budgets during the pandemic.

In Washington state, tax collections are expected to tumble by $8.8 billion over the next three years. For context, the state's current two-year budget is about $53 billion.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday rejected an appeal by former Washington state Auditor Troy Kelley who sought to have his 2017 convictions for possession of stolen property, filing false tax returns and making false statements overturned.

Kelley was previously sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison, but has remained free while appealing his case. 

Washington’s typically sleepy August primary will test the endurance of voters as they navigate a larger-than-usual crop of candidates. The robust turnout of would-be officeholders may be, at least partially, the result of the state making it easier to qualify for the ballot in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

For the first time since Herbert Hoover won the presidency nearly a century ago, the state of Washington won’t have a statewide initiative to the people on the November ballot in a presidential election year.

At the Secretary of State’s office, the 5 p.m. Thursday deadline to submit 259,622 valid voter signatures to qualify an initiative came and went quietly. No campaigns made an appointment to drop off petitions, according to a spokesperson.

A review of Washington’s initiative history reveals that not since 1928 has the November ballot been bereft of an initiative to the people in a year when voters were electing a president. 

Over the objections of a bipartisan group of nearly two dozen state senators, Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) has decided to stick with its plan to repost online the financial disclosure statements of elected officials, candidates and other government officials following a one-month “pause” to review security concerns.

Hours after Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee announced a statewide mandate for people to wear masks in public, a Republican sheriff in southwest Washington appeared to urge open defiance of the order.

“Don’t be a sheep,” Lewis County Sheriff Robert Snaza said to loud applause from a mostly mask-less crowd gathered in a church parking lot. 

After weeks of relying on voluntary compliance, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday afternoon announced an enforceable, statewide requirement that people wear face coverings when in public, including outdoors when six feet of separation can't be maintained. The new public health order, to be issued by the Secretary of Health, takes effect on Friday.

In a move not seen since the Great Recession, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday canceled pay raises for some state employees and ordered furloughs for many more through at least this fall. The move came the same day a new state revenue forecast projected an $8.8 billion drop in tax collections over the next three years.

Stepping up an attack he began on Twitter last week, President Trump on Monday spent more than four minutes at a White House meeting inveighing against Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and the six-block protest area on Capitol Hill now known as CHOP.

As the state of Washington grapples with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers are bracing for a bleak revenue forecast on June 17 that could portend a $10 billion drop in state tax collections over the next three years.

Already, a preliminary forecast in May predicted state revenues would crater by $7 billion over that same time period. The official forecast is likely to be worse. The state’s current two-year budget is approximately $53 billion.

“We know that we are faced with a big problem over the next few years,” said David Schumacher, the governor’s budget director, in a recent call with reporters.

A nearly 100-year-old historical marker has been mysteriously stolen from Washington's Capitol Campus and, with no leads on who took it, the state patrol is now asking the public for help solving the crime. 

The bronze plaque commemorated the location of the home of Washington's first territorial governor, Isaac Ingalls Stevens. Washington's first post-statehood governor, Elisha P. Ferry, also lived there when he served as a territorial governor. 

At the request of a powerful Democratic state senator who warned of “foreign intrusion,” Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) on Sunday temporarily suspended public, online access to the personal financial statements of elected officials, candidates and other public officials.

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