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As campaigning revs up, WA laws aim to detect cyber attacks and protect election workers


As campaigning revs up, WA laws aim to detect cyber attacks and protect election workers

Apr 01, 2024 | 8:14 pm ET
By Jerry Cornfield
As campaigning revs up, WA laws aim to detect cyber attacks and protect election workers
Unopened ballots await processing during the 2020 election. (Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

As the 2024 campaign season heats up, new laws are taking hold in Washington to protect election workers and boost security of ballot counting statewide.

One increases criminal penalties for harassment of election officials. Another requires counties to install certain security measures on election equipment and allows the Secretary of State to certify results in situations where counties don’t.

Combined with a third law to curb the number of rejected ballots, Washington lawmakers seek to bolster public confidence in the conduct of elections amid the continuing spread of misinformation and cyberthreats.

“(We) recognized the need to do all we can this cycle to protect the integrity of the entire system,” said Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place.

Leavitt authored House Bill 1241 making it a class C felony for a person to threaten election officials with injury through words or conduct. Someone convicted under the law could face up to five years in prison or a $10,000 fine. Gov. Jay Inslee signed it March 26 and it took effect immediately. Previously such behavior carried a lesser penalty of a gross misdemeanor.

The new law also allows election officials and family members living with them to enroll in the state’s address confidentiality program, which allows a Washington resident to use a public mailing address different from where they reside, if they are a victim of domestic violence, trafficking or stalking.

Leavitt, who calls election workers “the heroes of democracy,” recounted how former state elections director Lori Augino received threats following the 2020 election.

And, last November, several counties were forced to halt ballot counting when envelopes containing an unknown white powder – later identified in two counties as fentanyl – arrived in their election offices.

The bill “sends a clear message that we value the commitment of election workers to conduct fair, nonpartisan elections and that any threats made to dissuade or endanger election workers in doing their job will be met with significant consequences,” said Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell, who attended the bill signing last month. His office was named in a lawsuit that falsely claimed uncertified voting equipment was used to manipulate ballots in 2020.

Cybersecurity improvements

The other major election bill for the 2024 cycle comes in response to a handful of Washington counties opposing use of a cybersecurity device known as an Albert sensor that is designed to alert election officials to potential hacking attempts against their networks.

Under Senate Bill 5843, which takes effect in June, each of Washington’s 39 counties must install “an intrusion detection system that passively monitors its network for malicious traffic” around the clock.

“It is unfortunate that we can’t get all of our counties to voluntarily use this tool to protect our democracy,” Inslee said when he signed the bill March 13. “But this is a consequence of this age of conspiracy theories and disinformation about our elections.”

The law also says when a county canvassing board refuses to certify results of an election without cause, the Secretary of State “may examine the records, ballots, and results of the election and certify the results.”

Inslee said the language is a result of “ongoing, persistent and continuing disinformation” spread by former president Donald Trump and his followers “ever since he lost in 2020.”

Voter signature protections

The third law focuses on reducing the number of ballots rejected because the voter’s signature on the return envelope does not match the one on file for them. 

Historically, most ballots are processed without incident. Even among ballots that are challenged for signature discrepancies, 60% are fixed and counted before the election is certified, research shows. 

One recent study did find a disparity in rejection rates among counties. And another analysis found voters of color, particularly Hispanic and Asian voters, had their ballots rejected at a higher rate than white voters.

Sen. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, sponsored Senate Bill 5890 to beef up education efforts for voters to understand how they can resolve issues with their ballot, such as a mismatched signature. It also requires letting voters know that their signature on the envelope will be compared with the one when they registered.

And it establishes a work group to come up with a uniform design for ballot return envelopes for counties to use in 2026.

Fell said matching the signature on the return ballot envelope with the one registration system is “an important safeguard of our vote-by-mail system.”

Valdez’s bill “ensures greater consistency among county signature review practices and more opportunity for voters to ensure their signature can be confirmed and their ballot counted,” Fell said.