The job is on the ballot in six states this year, and the campaigns there reflect larger anxieties around election integrity and voter access. Usually sleepy affairs, these races are turning hotly political — and in some cases, even personal.
These people, virtually none of whom are widely known beyond their families and their states’ capitol buildings, will be centerstage in any contested election. Barring extreme delays, newly elected secretaries won’t play any role in overseeing their states’ other 2020 contests. But these officials will help decide how elections are run and how votes counted going forward.
In a handful of states, the secretaries will play a role in the redistricting process for state and federal legislative seats. Secretaries are responsible for overseeing the election and ensuring votes are counted fairly in all but 10 states.
Edgardo Cortés, Virginia’s former election supervisor, said the increase in attention paid to secretaries’ work during this campaign season in many states “is like night and day.”
Interviews with nine candidates in the 2020 races — taking place in Missouri, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia — reveal intense clashes over how citizens should vote and how states should protect the process. West Virginia challenger Natalie Tennant accused Republican Secretary of State Mac Warner of making the state “the laughingstock of election security” for embracing internet voting. Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft scoffed at his Democratic opponent Yinka Faleti’s support of a more targeted system for ballot recounts, saying Faleti “doesn’t seem very well informed.”
Some individual secretaries have been lightning rods in past elections, from the hanging chad debacle of 2000, when Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris refused to extend the state’s recount, to Democrats’ accusations in 2004 that Ohio’s secretary tilted the vote toward President George W. Bush by restricting ballot access. During Georgia governor’s race two years ago, Democrats alleged that then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp put his thumb on the scale to assure his own victory against Stacey Abrams, including by changing polling sites and purging voter rolls.
Thanks to the coronavirus crisis, debates over mail-in ballots, reports of aggressive foreign interference and Trump’s suggestions that he would blame a loss on widespread fraud, more Americans than ever before are paying attention to even minute logistics of voting this year. Thirty-five states are facing election-related lawsuits with allegations ranging from having too few ballot drop-boxes, to not doing enough to avoid long polling lines, to requiring notarized mail-in ballot envelopes.
The tensions are evident on the campaign trail. Secretaries’ challengers regularly blast them for failing to help local officials block hackers, allowing people to vote online and leaving voter registration databases vulnerable to intruders.
In Missouri, Faleti penned an op-ed calling Ashcroft’s mail-in voting policies “derelict and dangerous to our democracy.” In Montana, Democratic candidate Bryce Bennett delivered a stump speech criticizing the retiring Republican incumbent for holding back election grants from counties for “unspecified projects.” And in Washington state, Democratic nominee Gael Tarleton took to Twitter to accuse Republican Secretary Kim Wyman of standing by while Trump “undermined faith in our state’s electoral system.”.
Though none of these states will decide the presidential election, their heated campaigns reveal sharp disagreements about how to safeguard elections, with the winners likely to enact policies that set precedents for other states. In particular, two races on opposite sides of the country — in Washington and West Virginia — showcase the contentiousness of the moment.
In Washington state, candidates spar over new technology and help for counties
During a virtual debate in Washington state in July, the candidates sparred over a new centralized voter registration database — the brainchild of Secretary Wyman. Tarleton, a state representative, argued it had been “plagued with failures and outages.” Wyman, who is running for her third four-year term, defended the database, saying that no system was perfect.
The federally funded database, called VoteWA, includes features such as real-time mail-in ballot tracking and more advanced address-verification measures. But the $9.5 million system also experienced major bugs when it debuted ahead of an August 2019 primary, and Tarleton said in an interview that it produced “serious problems” in some counties that November.
“Some part of VoteWA has failed in every election conducted since it was rolled out,” Tarleton said Tarleton. “There is a system problem — either a design or a performance problem — and we have to find out why.”
Wyman said her office was “still stabilizing” VoteWA and that it had experienced the same growing pains as any other new technology. She described it as a focus for her next term, while calling the system “a model for other states.”
Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting have also become a campaign issue.
Wyman, a moderate Republican who spent 12 years as Thurston County’s top election official, has received national attention for defending her state’s vote-by-mail tradition amid Trump’s attacks. Tarleton and state Democrats, who hope to pick up a secretary seat that has been in Republican hands for almost 60 years, say Wyman hasn’t stood up to the president enough.
Tarleton, a former Port of Seattle commissioner and Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, also accused Wyman of not doing enough to provide guidance to local election officials.
Tarleton said county officials have complained that Wyman failed to offer them guidance for spending their portions of their initial federal election security grants, resulting in an uncoordinated patchwork of computer system upgrades. Wyman said she left it up to the counties to set their spending priorities because they have different needs.
One thing they agree on: constituents should not be casting ballots over the internet.
Wyman cites the expert consensus that no safe way currently exists to do so. She acknowledged that her position might be unpopular in her state, which offers the technology to military and overseas voters. But Wyman, herself a former overseas voter (she lived in Europe for two years while her husband served at various U.S. Army posts), said her opposition was rooted in a commitment to protect every ballot: “I don’t want to give any voter the false impression that their ballot is coming in in a secure [way] electronically.” Tarleton has made similar points.
And both say there are still gaps in election security that they have plans to address.
If re-elected, Wyman said she’d prioritize increasing election security aid to counties. She plans to expand a system she created in 2019 through which experts conducted cyber assessments in all of the state’s 39 counties. Wyman’s office said they were able to work with local officials in many counties to make improvements. She wants to offer even more help to smaller counties “that are lucky to have an IT person in their county, let alone in their elections division.”
Tarleton, who has spearheaded several election security bills in the legislature, said she’d create public-private partnerships modeled on homeland-security organizations that she worked on in her previous role as a contractor for federal defense and intelligence agencies. Two examples she cited: creating a “mutual-aid partnership” among Northwestern states to protect election infrastructure and offering cyber certifications for election officials.
West Virginia’s internet voting firestorm
In February, Natalie Tennant, the Democratic nominee in West Virginia, went after incumbent Mac Warner over flaws in the mobile phone app the state used in a pilot program in 2018. Warner, she tweeted, “should tell us … were our votes secure and can they be changed?”
Tennant is trying to retake the secretary job after Warner unseated her in 2016, and she has denounced him for embracing internet voting.
In 2018, Warner made West Virginia the first state to partner with Voatz, a Boston-based company that makes a mobile voting app, in a general election. The app was limited to military service members and overseas residents, but Warner supports expanding it to people whose disabilities prevent them from mailing in ballots. Though there were no reported problems with the app in West Virginia, security experts have repeatedly uncovered flaws in Voatz’s platform and other internet voting systems. (Voatz has dismissed these findings as unrealistic.)
Tennant said Warner is now “known for making West Virginia the laughingstock of election security” over internet voting.
Warner remains unmoved. He says the authors of detailed technical rebukes are simply zealots for paper ballots who are “taking potshots at a system” without providing a solution. He compared them to “the people who were against the horseless carriage.”
West Virginians “are very much behind this,” Warner said. He noted that state lawmakers voted unanimously to continue the mobile voting pilot this year and expand it to voters with disabilities.
“They wouldn’t have done that had they had legitimate concerns about security,” he said. (The state later switched vendors after the release of two sharply critical Voatz audits.) New Jersey and Delaware also offered limited internet voting in this year’s primaries in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Tennant supports internet voting in theory — in 2010, she defended her own pilot project from criticisms about security concerns — but argues that Warner is working with an untrustworthy company.
“We’re dealing with a secretary of state who will say anything and do anything to make himself look great,” she said in an interview.
Like their counterparts in the Pacific Northwest, Warner and Tennant are at loggerheads over whether the state is doing enough to help beleaguered county clerks fend off hackers.
Warner said that when he took office, he “got an earful” from counties about unmet needs and quickly set up a system of local field representatives who serve as his liaisons. Now, he said, there is constant communication.
“The clerks know that, when they have a concern or an idea, we will listen,” he said.
But Tennant said Warner’s representatives often lack expertise. “Having a field rep is not good enough,” she said. She wants West Virginia to copy Illinois’ network of “cyber navigators,” security experts who provide detailed help and recommendations. The program has been well received by local officials and members of Congress.
Dueling views of county support and other issues across the country
The same debates seen in Washington and West Virginia are playing out across the country.
In Missouri, Secretary Ashcroft and Faleti, his Democratic challenger, have sparred over whether Ashcroft has done enough to support counties.
Faleti accused Ashcroft’s office of “sitting on the lion’s share” of the $7.2 million in election security funds that Congress provided in 2018, potentially discouraging lawmakers from appropriating more. Ashcroft said his office held back some of the funds to pay for long-term security monitoring.
“We didn’t want to just go in there, say, ‘Hey, right now you’re good,’ and then send them back out … to the wolves,” Ashcroft said.
Faleti, meanwhile, called Missouri’s aging voter registration database “pretty vulnerable to hacking” and pushed for risk-limiting audits, which use statistical formulas to double-check a relatively small subset of ballots, rather than recounting a larger number of them. Ashcroft rejected that idea, saying, “I don’t think the people of the state would suggest that we should be reviewing fewer ballots after elections than we are right now.”
In Montana, Democratic challenger Bryce Bennett, a state senator, offered similar criticism of the outgoing Republican incumbent, Corey Stapleton, whose deputy Christi Jacobsen is the GOP nominee.
“I’ve heard from counties big and small that … they’re not getting the help and the support and the resources they need from our secretary of state,” Bennett said. He said Stapleton — and, by extension, Jacobsen — mostly “sat on the sidelines” as cyber threats surged. (Jacobsen’s campaign did not respond to an interview request.)
Several candidates vowed to expand their state’s partnerships with cyber experts. Bennett pledged to “work with the folks who have gone toe-to-toe with the people who are attacking our elections here in Montana and across the country.”
Coming soon to a state near you
The outcomes of these contests will shape the future of election security nationwide.
States are “definitely” examining each others’ practices in search of better solutions, said Cortés, the former Virginia election chief and now an election security adviser at the Brennan Center for Justice. Cortés cited the migration to paper-based voting machines (which he helped spearhead in 2017), the growing use of a national voter-list maintenance system and the spread of risk-limiting audits.
Voters are paying attention, too. Merrill, the Connecticut secretary, said voters ask her every day why Connecticut hasn’t adopted Washington State’s model of automatic mail-ballot distribution.
“People are watching other states [and] what they’re doing,” Merrill said.