OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Washington voters have elected a Republican secretary of state for more than five decades in a state mostly run by Democrats.
Two-term Secretary of State Kim Wyman — the fifth Republican to hold the office since 1965 — is one of only three statewide elected Republicans on the West Coast. This year, she faces a challenge from Democratic state Rep. Gael Tarleton of Seattle, who is leaving the Legislature in December after serving four terms.
Both are supporters of the state’s vote-by-mail system, and Wyman has appeared on national news networks extolling the safety and security of the process, which has been in place in Washington for years. But as she was during her 2016 re-election bid, Wyman has been criticized by opponents for not speaking more forcefully against Republican President Donald Trump, including this year's attacks on the integrity of mail voting as several states move to incorporate changes ahead of the election amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Wyman said that she is “an elections administrator first and foremost.”
“If the president wants to rant and rave about how insecure vote by mail is or how our elections are going to be rigged, then then I’m going to talk about the security measures that Washington state put in place,” she said. “And I’m going to spend my time talking about the facts, and no, I’m not going to get mired down in some sort of political debate and posturing.”
Tarleton argues that stance is not enough, given that the president’s misleading rhetoric has accelerated.
“If you are not standing up and calling it out for what it is, which is outrageous behavior, then you are staying silent at a time when democracy needs us to defend it,” she said.
Wyman was first elected to the post in 2012 by a narrow margin of just 50.4%. In 2016, she beat Democratic challenger Tina Podlodowski, now the head of the state Democratic party, with nearly 55% of the vote. In this year’s top-two primary, Wyman received just under 51% of the vote, while Tarleton received about 43%.
Tarleton has criticized Wyman for her early opposition to bills that ultimately became law, including same-day registration and preregistration of 16 and 17 year olds. Wyman argues that while she had concerns about those measures, she wanted to ensure logistical and security measures were in place to balance that increased access, which she said she supports.
“Why wasn’t she a champion?” Tarleton asked. “And that is the difference between what we need in this state and what we’ve had in this state.”
Wyman said that even though the office is a partisan office — and she doesn't shy away from the fact she's a Republican — she says she believes she's approached the job in a nonpartisan way.
“It’s how you do the work every day, and my job is to inspire confidence in every voter no matter if they are a staunch Democrat or a hard-core Republican,” she said.
In addition to leading elections, the secretary of state also serves as chief corporations officer and supervisor of the state archives and state library.
Before being elected to the state’s top elections job, Wyman had previously served for a decade as the Thurston County auditor. Before that, she was the county’s elections director.
“Look at our resumes. Look at our experience,” Wyman said. Of the criticism Tarleton has leveled her way, Wyman says: “All of those things are to deflect from the fact that she’s never overseen an election.”
Tarleton, who most recently served as chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, served five years as a commissioner on the Port of Seattle before joining the state Legislature. She started her career in 1980 as a defense intelligence analyst for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, with top security clearance.
She points to her previous experience in managing people and technology, including her work leading a science and technology company overseeing offices in the U.S, Russia and Ukraine in the 1990s, to explain how she would approach elections in the state.
“This is about the job of the future, and the elections of the future are going to be about whether we can keep our technology network secure, whether we can keep our voters safe and secure, whether we are anticipating the kind of risks to our systems and networks and to our people,” she said. “It's not about what you've done in the past, it's about what it is you are prepared to do to pull teams together to solve the real problems we face.”
Tarleton says the support Wyman has previously received from Democratic voters is less likely this year due to the dynamic that the election is happening within: during a pandemic, an economic crisis and attacks by the president on vote by mail.
“This is unprecedented and therefore the voters are in a different frame of mind,” she said.
Wyman said she knows some Democratic voters who previously supported her may decide to vote a straight Democratic ticket this year because of the national political environment.
“Any time you run for election you have to accept that when you put the name on the ballot you could lose and you could lose for reasons that have nothing to do with you,” she said. “It’s a tough time right now to be a Republican nationally. It’s a tough time to be a Republican in Washington state, as always.”