OLYMPIA – The four candidates vying for Washington's secretary of state position debated election reform, including how to improve voter access and how to keep Washington's vote-by-mail system, in a League of Women Voters forum on July 16.
The socially-distanced debate took place over Zoom and aired on KSPS-TV. It is also available to be streamed on the station's website.
Candidates agreed that voter access and voter participation could improve in Washington, but disagreed on how to do that.
Democrat Gael Tarleton said the data show many communities, including communities of color, are not participating, and that improving voting participation should be a priority. She pointed to her experience working in the legislature to improve voter access and turnout.
"If we want civic engagement, we need to do the work of bringing those communities and those voices into the discussion," she said.
Incumbent Kim Wyman, a Republican, said she does not think voter turnout is declining in Washington but did acknowledge the difficulties communities of color and low-income communities have when it comes to voting. She said the best ways to help these communities is to talk with them and find solutions that best fit their needs. For example, she said some communities use drop boxes near community centers to pick up and drop off ballots, eliminating the need for a permanent address.
Each community has its own set of challenges, she said, and it's really about partnering with them.
Progressive Gentry Lange argued Washington's vote-by-mail system disproportionately hinders Native American and homeless populations, as they're more likely not to have permanent addresses. He said the state should open more early polling centers across the state to give people more options on how to vote.
"If you want to increase turnout for low-income communities, you need to give more access to last-minute voters," he said.
Lange said the biggest problem with voter participation is the lack of choices. Washington's top-two primary limits the viewpoints represented in the fall. He advocated for ranked-choice voting, a system where voters rank candidates by preference. The candidate with the most first-choice votes win.
Independent Ed Minger said the lack of engagement among voters is due to a lack of excitement. Politicians are forced to play a lot of games to get elected, he said, and that turns people off to elections. Minger wants to reform elections by removing paid advertisements and implementing approval voting. A voter is asked if they approve of a specific candidate. The candidate with the most approvals wins.
Tarleton said another area of elections reform is improving the state's VoteWA system, which was implemented in 2019. The statewide voter-management system is supposed to make systems more secure and allow for county auditors to improve their elections capabilities. She said it was not tested properly and was not deployed in collaboration with county auditors. She called for an audit of the system.
"It has been plagued with failures and outages," she said.
Wyman said she would welcome an audit, adding the reason the site launched when it did was because the Legislature set a date to have it running.
Along with elections, the secretary of state is responsible for business and corporation registration. Most candidates agreed the registration process could be updated.
Tarleton said that as the economy begins to reopen, it is essential the secretary of state's office is able to work with businesses and nonprofits to help them rebuild. The secretary of state should be working with the Washington State Department of Commerce to ensure businesses are able to have the resources they need.
"It's an essential part of this job," she said.
Minger shared his idea of creating a public database that would allow all residents to access information about businesses and nonprofits across the state as a way to regulate businesses.
"The purpose is so you can look at how you want to spend money," he said.
Wyman, who has faced criticism for refusing to stand up against President Trump's attacks on vote-by-mail, also said she would push to make the secretary of state's office nonpartisan in a second term. Making the office nonpartisan could make it more credible, she added.
The most important job of the secretary of state is trustworthiness, she said.
Tarleton, who has repeatedly criticized Wyman for not doing more to stand up to Trump, agreed that elections should not include partisan politics. Defending voter rights is not partisan, she said.
"That is why we have to fight back when our rights are under attack," Tarleton said.