The COVID-19 pandemic has renewed interest across the country in mail-in voting — which is how Washington state voters have cast ballots universally for nearly a decade.
Washington's Secretary of State Kim Wyman often is called upon by those elsewhere to explain how the process works. She's also a Republican, and leaders of her party — including President Donald Trump — have expressed skepticism about the idea of voting by mail. (She says she'd like to convince him otherwise.)
All of this comes as Washington state heads toward an August primary and a November general election. In fact, the deadline for candidates to file for the ballot just passed.
So with a lot of ground to cover, Wyman sat down with KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco to talk through some of the decisions voters will have to make in the late summer and fall, and the method by which they'll do it.
You can read the full conversation below, and hear the extended version of this conversation at the bottom of this post.
Ed Ronco, KNKX: Last week was the end of the candidate filing period, so we know who will be appearing on ballots across the state. When you look at who filed, what do you see? What story is told to you by that list?
Kim Wyman, Washington Secretary of State: That people are very energized. People are very interested in what's happening not only here in Washington state, but nationally. I see that in the sheer number of people that signed up for congressional races. We have 10 congressional seats here in Washington and we had 78 candidates.
KNKX: Do you think the number of candidates was affected by the pandemic?
Wyman: I wonder. I'm not totally sure what it is. The pandemic, of course. I asked the governor to waive the signature requirements for people who don't have enough money to file for office. And I was afraid that would really result in a flood of candidates. But we really haven't seen that many use that option. And I think that, yeah, maybe people are just more tuned in. They're watching more television or on social media or listening to the radio more. I'm not sure what it is, but they're much more engaged and very passionate about what's happening in their local community, let alone their state or the country or the world. I think that that's part of what's driving this. It’s got to be. I've never seen a race like this.
KNKX: It certainly is easier to to see the tangible connections between public policy and daily life.
Wyman: Absolutely. It is front and center and you can't escape it. You can't really leave your house except to run critical errands and you can't go to work. Your kids aren't going to school. And all of that adds up. And it's a constant drumbeat of the connection between government and in our lives. It's opened people's eyes in a different way. And I think that's why we're seeing the interest.
KNKX: There's so much going on right now in the world of how we choose our leaders, including at the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments last week over the issue of faithless electors — members of the Electoral College who don't vote in line with the popular vote of the state. Washington dealt with that in the last presidential election. How big a deal is this case for our state?
Wyman: Well, it's a big deal. We're, of course, one of the litigants. The lawsuit was filed by three of the four faithless electors from 2016. And it was over the penalty fee that my office assessed. It was part of state law and it came out of a faithless elector back in 1976, when now-Sen. Mike Padden was one of the electors and he didn't want to cast his vote for (President Gerald) Ford. And he cast it for Ronald Reagan. And the law changed.
It put a fee on faithless electors and has never been tested until 2016. I was the first secretary of state that got to decide how much of a fee to charge and what to do. And it was a $1,000 fee. The fundamental question is whether the state has the right to determine and set any kind of rules or boundaries around the electors. Or once they’re appointed, are they just completely free to do whatever they want and vote their moral conscience rather than what the outcome of the election was?
KNKX: Let's talk about mail-in voting. The pandemic disrupted some primary schedules in different states. And now there's sort of this national conversation about whether mail-in voting should be more widespread. We've been doing it for almost a decade now. How do you make the case to skeptical officials that mail-in voting is safe and adequate?
Wyman: I talk about our experience here in Washington state, and it has to be a balanced approach. I don't believe the entire country right now can turn on a dime and turn on universal vote by mail. I've really been saying that in every interview I've had because it took our state five years once we wanted to move to vote by mail. It takes time to build out the all of the infrastructure.
But also you have to put in the security controls to be able to inspire confidence in your harshest critic. You know, my goal would be to actually make the President of the United States believe that elections can be run securely in a vote by mail environment. But it's a heavy lift. And we had probably 10 years of ramping up to that point in 2005 when we decided to move to vote by mail.
You know, when you're sending a ballot to every single voter in your state, you have to have some really good security controls and measures and fail-safes on the backside so that those voters aren't disenfranchised because they made a mistake and that they can have a confidence that their ballot wasn't canceled by someone who wasn't eligible.
KNKX: Yeah, there is some skepticism on the national level among Republican officials. You mentioned the president. Do you talk to Republican members of Congress from this state about mail-in voting? And what are those conversations like?
Wyman: I actually haven't had direct conversations with too many members of Congress at all. Most of them have been conversations with Sen. (Amy) Klobuchar, Sen. (Elizabeth) Warren, some of those folks who are really trying to get legislation passed and really making that case and trying to think of things that need to happen.
What I've been encouraging people in forums like this is (to have) members of Congress really trying to work together. We have to put that partisanship aside and really put the country's interests ahead of this and compromise and come up with methods that are going to empower states to be able to be successful this fall. Each state is going to have its own path, because a state that has 2 or 3 percent absentee ballots is not going to be able to ramp up to 100 percent vote by mail by November, sheerly because there's not enough time.
KNKX: The Republican National Committee is pledging $20 million to push back against some election reforms, including mail-in voting. And there are people here in Washington state who are going to receive messages from the RNC about this. As a Republican elected official in our state, what do you say to constituents who will be told not to trust the system that you've spent years championing?
Wyman: You know, it's a case-by-case basis. I go on whatever program will give me a chance to have the conversation, and I talk directly to their issues, or go and talk to groups individually. You know, what is it that you're afraid of? You're afraid of double voting. Well, here, let me show you the measures we have in place. You're worried about people on Election Day using the new same-day registration law and being issued five to 10 ballots each. You know what? That could happen. It's just like when you're to tell if you lose your keys, they give you another key. They could give you five keys. Only one will work. We actually built out a voter registration system that allows for same-day registration and builds in that security measure. So even if county auditors issue three ballots in three different counties, they have a system now to talk to each other “live-time,” and they know which one is the live ballot and which one can be counted. They will actually hold the other two and make sure they're not counted.
KNKX: We've had a couple of conversations in the past, and I know that the process and the perception of the process are very important to you. There have been at the same time, I've seen a lot of think pieces and columns about all the risks and challenges this election could pose. As you look to November, what do you see?
Wyman: Oh, there's so much that keeps me up at night. You know, just if you go back four years ago, the thing that we were starting to be worried about was Russian interference in our elections. And we've spent the last four years, not only as a state, but as a country, building up our cybersecurity defenses and educating our workers and doing all of the things that we can do to combat potential foreign interference and domestic interference in our elections.
If you had asked me this question a year ago, that's what I would have told you was the biggest, heaviest lift for 2020. You have the highest profile election we've had in probably a century. That was a heavy lift. And now you add in COVID-19, which completely changes the way elections are run. At the most fundamental level, how are we going to staff them? Our average worker here in Washington state that does elections is 70, for seasonal workers. That's true across the country. So these are the highest risk group workers. So we're going to lose anywhere from half to two-thirds of our workforce just because of, you know, social distancing and them not being able to come into a public place. So how are we going to mitigate that?
How are we going to make sure that this election is accessible and secure, you know? States are going to have to probably consolidate polling places, for example, and expand absentee balloting. It's really all of us working together to try to make all that work.
There are some bright spots in here. I think that all of the work we did to mitigate cybersecurity has put election officials in close contact and in communication in a way we never had been before. I've been doing elections for 27 years and we now can communicate on a dime. You know, we can have a Zoom call in an hour and get 100 election officials from across the country on the call. We couldn't do that four years ago. We couldn't do that a year ago. That power of that communication has helped us share best practices for vote by mail and absentee balloting. Lessons learned. So I think that that communication is helping us be in a better position. Election officials across the country are very concerned every single day.
KNKX: So there are a lot of thoughts that keep you up at night. What's the thought that soothes you back to sleep?
Wyman: The thing that soothes me back to sleep is that this country's elections rests in the hands of about 10,000 elected officials like me, who are either appointed or are elected. And they make a commitment to uphold the laws and their constitutions and their state and the laws and the constitution of the United States. And we all take that to heart and we all might be partisans and all of that. But we know what's at stake.
I know that that commitment and that professionalism is going to matter in this moment where all eyes are going to turn on us and we're going to be ready for it. And we are going to do everything we can to communicate with the public what's happening and why.
Our job is to inspire confidence that the losing team believes that they lost. That's a high bar, and we're going to we're going to get there.
Kim Wyman is Washington's Secretary of State. She spoke with KNKX on May 19, 2020.