OLYMPIA — Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson went on the offensive in a debate with Secretary of State Steve Hobbs on Wednesday, calling him “an inexperienced political appointee” and insinuating his Democratic Party ties make him susceptible to partisan influence in the office.
Anderson contended Hobbs, who has been in the post since November, is unable to effectively counter claims of fraud or bolster voter confidence because of a lack of understanding of what’s fully involved in conducting elections.
And Anderson, who is running as a nonpartisan candidate, said she’s doing so because it gives voters confidence she will be free from partisan influence in the office that oversees elections.
“We have to shield the office of Secretary of State from partisanship that is eroding trust in our elections and that begins here with this election,” she said in the hour-long debate hosted by the Association of Washington Business.
Hobbs, a Democrat from Lake Stevens, countered that party labels don’t matter. What matters is “what person you have in the office,” he said.
As to experience, he said he said he has been in the post a year and seen the duties entail managing elections amid attempted hacks, cyber break-ins and misinformation campaigns. He said his military service — he’s a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard — provides him experience to tackle those issues that Anderson lacks.
“The office of Secretary of State has evolved beyond that of simply overseeing elections and supporting our 39 counties to one where we’re protecting our democracy from cyberthreats and misinformation campaigns,” he said.
Hobbs repeatedly noted that as the first person of color in the office. His mother is Japanese. He understands “all too well” how minority communities may feel unrepresented.
Hobbs, 52, of Lake Stevens, was in his fourth term in the state Senate when he was appointed to the post by Democrat Gov. Jay Inslee after Kim Wyman, a Republican, left to work in the Biden administration. She was the fifth consecutive Republican to hold the office in Washington dating back to 1965.
Anderson, 57, was first elected to the nonpartisan county auditor post in 2009. She won her first full term in 2010 and been re-elected twice with opposition. She’s also a former Tacoma City Council member.
Whoever wins this year’s election will serve the remaining two years of Wyman’s term. They will be Washington’s chief elections officer and oversee several other entities including the state archives and the state library. The job pays $136,996 a year.
In the Aug. 2 primary, Hobbs faced seven opponents and captured about 40% of the vote. Anderson garnered just under 13% for the second spot, beating out four Republicans and shutting the GOP out of the November race.
In the debate, they agreed on a few things. Both are open to moving the primary to an earlier date. Additional audits of batches of ballots should be done in every county as they already are in Pierce and Snohomish. More effort must be made to combat election misinformation, they said.
But they had starkly different views on the value of ranked choice voting, in which voters choose candidates in the order they prefer — first choice, second choice, and so on. If no one gets a majority of first-choice votes, subsequent rankings are considered until a majority is reached.
Hobbs said his office will help any county where it is deployed, though he’s not endeared with offering the option statewide. Getting people to vote is hard enough. This system is not easy to understand and could turn-off voters who already find participating a challenge.
“I am not against this idea,” he said. “What I am against is rushing forward and not thinking about those Washingtonians who are going to be disenfranchised.”
Anderson said it’s in use in a lot of places and “the sky hasn’t fallen.”
“Ranked choice voting is coming to Washington state, and I don’t know in which local jurisdiction it’s going to land first, but what I do know is we’re going to need a secretary of state who isn’t going to stick their head in the sand and is going to get ahead of this,” she said.
Afterwards, Anderson said going on the attack didn’t come easy.
“To accentuate differences and to minimize somebody is not natural,” she said. “There is a contrast and it’s up to me to show that contrast. I have a responsibility to the voters and to the 39 county auditors to do this.”
Hobbs said he expected it.
“She has to attack. That’s her strategy,” he said. “She’s an elected office-holder. She’s just as much a politician as I am.”