Elections

Multiple Washington State county elections offices just got envelopes with white powder

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.

Andrew Villeneuve

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