This morning, in what appears to be a disgusting coordinated attack on our system of elections, three of Washington State’s four largest county elections departments received envelopes in the mail that contained a white powder, with at least one of the envelopes also containing a note that read “End the election now,” according to county elections officials and early media reports.
Envelopes were received at the offices of Pierce, King, and Spokane County Elections. Those three counties, along with Snohomish, are the largest in the state, home to more than sixty percent of Washington’s population.
In Pierce County, the Tacoma Police Department, Washington State Patrol, and the Tacoma Fire Department all showed up to respond after a call was placed around 8:45 AM from a Pierce County Elections employee to report the matter.
Subsequent testing showed that the white powder was simply baking powder, which may also be the case for the other envelopes that were sent, assuming they were sent by the same person or persons. Out of an abundance of caution, the building was evacuated, though it has now been reopened.
A similar sequence of events then took place in Spokane and King counties.
The Spokesman-Review reported, citing Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, that an employee opened an envelope with a “suspicious substance” (white powder) around 10:15 AM. “The person informed her manager who halted ballot counting and evacuated the office,” the Spokesman-Review reported.
Dalton was advised by police not to resume counting today, so it looks like Spokane County will not be releasing a fresh tally of ballots this afternoon.
The substance is being tested to ascertain what it is.
Over in Renton, according to King County Elections Director Julie Wise, a King County Elections employee likewise opened a letter — not a ballot return envelope, Wise explained, but a letter — containing white powder around 11 AM Pacific Time. As in Pierce County, first responders were summoned. The King County Elections facility was evacuated as a precaution.
Hazmat and fire crews are currently working the scene.
Given that this is breaking news, there’s a lot we still don’t know, but it simply can’t be a coincidence that three of the four largest county elections offices in Washington all received envelopes with a white powder on the same morning. And right on the heels of Seattle-area Jewish synagogues getting them, too.
We’d really like to see whoever is responsible for this get caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law by both federal and state local officials.
It is possible that Snohomish and other county elections offices were also sent envelopes, and if so, hopefully they can be intercepted.
This disturbing set of incidents is a reminder that there are bad actors out there who want to attack our democracy. We must improve our threat defenses.
We certainly could benefit from more robust mail screening.
NPI stands ready to work with legislators and partners to improve election security. We are less than a year away from an extremely consequential presidential election that bad actors will likely be seeking to disrupt and influence for their own ends. It’s imperative that we allocate more resources to support our election workers, and toughen penalties for crimes perpetrated against them.
UPDATE, 3 PM: Authorities have confirmed that Skagit County Elections also received an envelope with white powder. Skagit is a medium-sized county located between Snohomish and Whatcom counties in Western Washington.
NPI received a statement from Secretary of State Steve Hobbs commenting on the incident. Here is the news release that they just sent to us:
Envelopes received by elections offices in King, Pierce, Skagit, and Spokane counties were found Wednesday to contain unknown powdery substances. Each impacted county’s elections workers evacuated their offices, and elections leaders have taken precautions to keep employees and office visitors safe.
Local, state, and federal authorities are investigating the incidents, which occurred while workers were processing ballots from the Nov. 7 General Election. Because investigations are ongoing, the Office of the Secretary of State can provide no further information about the incidents.
Secretary of State Steve Hobbs said these incidents illustrate the need to take seriously the threats that elections workers face in administering Washington’s democratic process.
“The safety of staff and observers is paramount as elections workers across the state open envelopes and count each voter’s ballot,” Secretary Hobbs said. “These incidents underscore the critical need for stronger protections for all election workers. Democracy rests upon free and fair elections. These incidents are acts of terrorism to threaten our elections.”
During the state’s Aug. 1 [Top Two election], King County and Okanogan County election officials received suspicious substances in envelopes. The envelope and letter received by King County Elections were turned over to the United States Postal Inspection Service, which performed an analysis that detected trace amounts of fentanyl. The substance found in the Okanogan County envelope was determined to be unharmful.
UPDATE, 3:20 PM: King County Elections says that despite the disruption, they will be releasing a new tally today. Here’s their statement:
King County Elections to Post Updated Results at 4 p.m.
This morning, King County Elections received a piece of mail that contained white powder. The envelope was immediately isolated, the facility evacuated, and 911 was called. Law enforcement and HAZMAT teams arrived quickly to assess the situation.
The piece of concerning mail arrived in our mailroom, on the first floor, in our administrative suite. All ballots remained secured on the ballot processing floor and were monitored by both security cameras and livestreamed webcams viewable on the King County Elections website.
This situation kept Elections staff out of the building and away from processing ballots for approximately three hours. After the mailroom was cleared and cleaned by HAZMAT, staff returned to work and processing resumed for the day.
We expect to add approximately 20,000 ballots in the day’s 4 PM results update and will post additional updated results at 4 PM on weekdays until certification on November 28.
If we get further updates, we’ll add to this story.