What Inslee should look for when appointing a new WA secretary of state

The only Republican in a statewide seat is joining the Biden administration. Here’s what our governor should consider when replacing her.

Kim Wyman at podium

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman talks to reporters in her office at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., on Jan. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Biden White House recently set partisanship aside by appointing Washington’s Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman to a key election security position. Gov. Jay Inslee now needs to appoint someone to replace her until the 2022 election. I hope he will follow the president’s example.

Alternatively, Inslee could use this vacancy to help his party seize control of the only statewide office held by a Republican, or to groom a rising Democrat for even higher office. But at this moment when there is so much scrutiny, misinformation and outright assault on our elections, I hope he’ll rise above partisan politics and appoint someone with relevant experience whose only desire is to temporarily serve our state.

Various names, on both sides of the aisle, have been floated as possible appointees to fill the position Wyman will soon resign. When looking over the list of names, here’s what the governor should look for.

First, the governor should remove from the list of possible appointees anyone who has never supervised an election. Most of the Washington secretary of state’s job involves administering, supervising and certifying our state’s elections, and we have a major election in only 12 months. Our secretary of state needs to spend those months bulletproofing the 2022 election, not learning the job. The appointee needs to arrive with the specific, professional skills required to ensure fair and legal elections.

The second mandatory quality is leadership. Washington’s secretary of state is an executive position. It requires someone who has the administrative skills to manage over 300 employees across our state, and who can provide leadership and guidance to 39 independently elected county auditors.

Wyman provided thoughtful leadership that people on her staff and in county auditors’ offices around the state respected. That’s why in her 2020 reelection campaign, nearly every Democratic county auditor endorsed her. Leadership that commands respect from both sides of the aisle will be needed in 2022.

Finally, in 2022, an even temperament will be an essential quality in a secretary of state. Most likely, our chief elections officer will be on the receiving end of potshots, hostile criticism, lawsuits or threats. That is unfortunate, but that’s the current landscape. So, the appointee needs to be someone who has demonstrated an ability to detach themselves from emotional responses, ignore the noise and move forward with established processes and procedures regardless of the outcome they produce. 

In addition to the above qualities, I’d like the governor to consider only those who will not seek election in 2022. Even someone who has supervised county-level elections will have a great deal to learn before being prepared to oversee statewide voting, and there will not be time to learn both what is needed and run their own statewide campaign. 

Finally, I suggest Governor Inslee appoint someone from the opposing party. Doing so would honor Washington voters’ preference for a less partisan approach to overseeing elections, and historically, a less partisan approach to election supervision is what Washington Republicans have brought to the secretary of state’s office.

Recent Republican secretaries of state — Ralph Munro (1981-2000), Sam Reed (2001-2013) and Kim Wyman (2014-2021) — each put the public’s trust above their personal or party’s interests.  Reed, who in his last election was endorsed by all but one Democratic county auditor, certainly rose to the moment in his conduct of the 2004 gubernatorial recounts.

By contrast, in each of the past three elections, the Democratic candidates for secretary of state have been partisans. In 2012, the Democrat candidate was a former Democratic state senator; in 2016 it was the current Democratic state party chair; and in 2020 it was a former House Democratic floor leader. In each of those elections, voters chose the less partisan Republican candidate. The governor should honor that voters’ preference, and in doing so also demonstrate support for apolitical election supervision.

Then, the 2022 Legislature should move to make the office of Washington secretary of state a nonpartisan office. The official supervising our elections should not be beholden to any party.

Inslee would serve our state well if in choosing our chief elections officer he transcended partisan politics, followed the president’s example and appointed someone who is experienced, widely respected and from another party. Then, next November, the voters can decide whom they want overseeing our elections.

Editor’s note: Bill Bryant ran against Jay Inslee as a Republican in the 2016 governor’s race.

About the Authors & Contributors

Bill Bryant

Bill Bryant is a contributing opinion columnist.