Originally published in INSIDER | December 17, 2021
By Grace Panetta
Julie Anderson, who is vying for the role of Washington State’s secretary of state, says she likes “a challenge.”
But even in a state that’s elected independent-minded secretaries of state in the past, Anderson said, trying to get elected as a nonpartisan candidate within the US’s two-party political system is inherently an uphill battle.
“I am running with one hand behind my back, for sure,” she told Insider in a Thursday interview.
Washington State has pioneered election innovations in voting by mail, top-two primary elections, and election security. And in the 2022 midterms, the Evergreen State could be the first in the nation in over a century to elect a nonpartisan chief election official.
Anderson, the county auditor and top election official in Pierce County, launched her campaign for Washington secretary of state on Wednesday seeking to accomplish that feat.
She has served in local government since 2004, including 12 years running elections in Washington’s second-largest county. She’s running to serve out the rest of former Republican Secretary of State Kim Wy man’s term. Wyman was reelected in 2020 but left the office earlier this year to take a senior position working on election security issues under the Biden administration with the nation’s top cybersecurity agency.
In next August’s primary, Anderson will compete against Steve Hobbs, a Democrat who Gov. Jay Inslee appointed to fill the position, and Republican state lawmaker Keith Wagoner. In Washington’s primary elections, candidates for all parties compete on the same ballot, and the top two advance to the general. In a political system dominated by two main political parties, Washington’s top-two primaries could give Anderson an opening she wouldn’t have in another state.
“It’s values-based and really consistent with my MO,” Anderson said of her run. “I’ve never run under a party banner … so there’s no reason to change that point of view. And it’s because I like to work with everybody, and like to solve problems that work for everybody. And why create that unnecessary drag in an office like this?”
An elected or appointed secretary of state serves as the chief election official in 34 US states. And all, except for Pennsylvania’s appointed elections chief, officially serve under the flag of the Democratic or Republican parties.
“No other democracy lets partisans run elections the way we do,” Kevin Johnson, executive director of the Election Reformers Network, a group that advocates for nonpartisan election administration, told Insider. “We have gotten by with our approach because officials have acted in good faith, but now that’s under threat, and we need true nonpartisan professionals in these offices.”
Wyman, a Republican, spent much of 2020 vigorously defending Washington’s vote-by-mail system from staunch critics within her own party, including former President Donald Trump, and assisting other states in expanding voting by mail. Before leaving office, she also advocated for making the secretary position nonpartisan.
Asked about why she’s running as a nonpartisan candidate, Anderson replied: “It creates more trusting relationships with the residents and peers of residents in Washington State right off the bat.”
While running under the banner of a political party can provide candidates with more funds and resources, “it’s just not worth the money,” Anderson said.
Long before 2020, partisan secretaries of state running competitive elections have spurred concerns about conflicts of interest. While they don’t directly create policy, secretaries can still tip the scales either when shaping and interpreting election policy prior to an election or weighing in on contentious recounts and election disputes — most famously in the 2000 presidential election dispute in Florida.
In 2018, for example, former GOP secretaries of state like Brian Kemp in Georgia and Kris Kobach in Kansas faced criticism for their actions in overseeing their own gubernatorial elections. Kemp, for example, removed tens of thousands of eligible voters from the rolls, and accused his political opponents of hacking into the state’s voter registration system, an allegation that was later unsubstantiated by law enforcement.
Such precedents unfairly harm secretaries like Wyman who worked to put partisan politics aside, according to Anderson.
“Past secretaries of state who have had really very good reputations for operating their office in a nonpartisan way were unnecessarily savaged by their own parties and other parties because people suspected that they were playing favorites or shouldn’t be playing favorites,” Anderson said.
When it came to Wyman, Anderson said: “People were always undercutting her and trying to deprive her of oxygen and she was trying to do really good things for elections.
“They wanted to deprive her of any opportunity or advantage to run for governor. And she never had any intentions of running for governor,” she added.
Anderson said that in addition to making the secretary of state and county auditors’ offices nonpartisan, she wants secretaries of state to be expressly barred from partisan political activity, like endorsing political candidates, or from using the secretary’s office as a launchpad for higher office.
“I think what’s going to be appealing at the end of the day is expertise and that experience counts,” Anderson said of her campaign. “So it’s up to me to make the case that this is a ministerial job where you’ve got to have your head screwed on straight, and you’ve got to know the facts, and you’ve got to have some real working experience.”
“When you’re the Washington State Secretary, you play a national leadership role. We are exhibit A,” she added.
Not only can partisan secretaries of state use their positions to undermine the opposing party, but they can face antidemocratic pressures from within. The 2020 election showed how partisan election chiefs are vulnerable to intense pressure and intimidation to sway election outcomes from powerful figures in their own parties.
Trump, nearly two months after the 2020 election, pressured Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” the votes necessary to reverse his election loss in the state in a January 2 phone call. This came after weeks of Trump publicly lambasting Raffensperger and other Republicans, like Gov. Doug Ducey in Arizona, who defended the integrity of elections Trump lost.
“I’m really worried about these democratic institutions being cannibalized from the inside out,” Anderson said. “People that want to weaken election systems or roll them back and make them more difficult and inaccessible and then running for office on that platform, and working with like-minded people in legislative races is a way of dismantling a lot of progress in America.”
Rick Barron, the outgoing elections director in Fulton County, Georgia, previously told Insider that new details of the intimidation and violent harassment that his rank-and-file staffers faced as downstream consequences from Trump’s brazen efforts to overturn the election were “surreal.”
“As a non-partisan this makes me fear for our democratic institutions,” he said. “I believe in government institutions rather than political parties. Those institutions have stood and evolved since the beginning of our republic.”
Raffensperger and Kemp held firm under pressure and stood by their certification of the 2020 election for President Joe Biden. But because they still ultimately operate as partisan officials within a two-party system, both risk losing their jobs to Trump-endorsed primary challengers next year for doing so.
“If one team picks the umpire, they control the game, and there’s not much point in playing. If political parties control elections, they can determine who wins, and our democracy starts to become meaningless,” Johnson said.
Anderson, for her part, wants Washington to pioneer nonpartisan election administration.
“I want to capture the seat and be an example for the rest of the nation, that it can be done, that it is possible,” she said.