Unknown white powder halts ballot counts in King, Pierce, Spokane, Skagit

The discoveries Wednesday morning prompted workers to evacuate their offices a day after Washington's general election.

pile of ballot envelopes at the King County Elections Office

Ballots ready for counting at the King County Elections Office in Renton on Monday, October 30, 2023. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Elections offices in King, Pierce, Skagit and Spokane counties were evacuated Wednesday morning after elections workers in each office opened envelopes containing an unknown white powder.  

In King County, workers opened an envelope containing the substance late Wednesday morning, prompting the evacuation. According to King County Elections spokesperson Halei Watkins, all staff were checked out by first responders and there were no reported injuries. Watkins specified that ballots remained secured on the second floor of the building during the evacuation.

As of 1:40 p.m. managers had been given the OK by emergency responders to reenter the building. Watkins said staff resumed counting ballots late Wednesday afternoon and that they will provide a smaller-than-planned update to election results at 4 p.m.

A Renton Police Department spokesperson told Crosscut that a test of the powder found at King County Elections was positive for traces of fentanyl. Renton PD plans to coordinate with the FBI to investigate.

During the August primaries, King County Elections received an envelope in the mail that contained a threatening letter that referenced white powder and narcan. Though unlike this morning’s incident there was no visible powder in that letter, Watkins said a test by the U.S. Postal Service in August found trace amounts of fentanyl on the envelope.

“We have extensive mail trainings. We have gloves on site which we strongly recommend staff wear anytime they open mail and ballots. And we were able to run through hazmat procedures in August, so we were, sadly, well prepared for today,” Watkins told Crosscut.

According to Pierce County Elections Manager Kyle Haugh, a staff member opened a plain letter envelope around 8:30 a.m. containing white powder. The elections offices were evacuated for two hours. Then staff returned to counting ballots. Haugh said preliminary tests of the powder by law enforcement showed it was likely baking soda.

Pierce County will still release its next round of election results today at 4 p.m., but will count fewer ballots than intended due to the evacuation.

In Spokane, an election worker opened an envelope containing white powder at approximately 10:15 a.m, prompting evacuation of the offices. Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton told Crosscut that the employee was just fine. Spokane Police Department took the substance for further testing.

Emergency responders gave the all-clear Wednesday afternoon and some employees returned to work. But because of the delays, Spokane will not release new election results Wednesday. Dalton said ballot counting will resume Thursday morning.

Derrick Nunnally, a spokesman for the Washington Secretary of State's Office, said a similar envelope also showed up in the Skagit County Elections Office on Wednesday. He noted that Secretary of State Steve Hobbs supported a bill in the Legislature this past session that would have made harassing an election worker a Class C felony. The bill passed the House but did not get a hearing in the Senate. Hobbs would like to see that bill considered again in 2024, Nunnally said.

An elections official in Thurston County told Crosscut that they have not had any similar incidents today.

On Thursday, Snohomish County Elections received a piece of mail similar to the letters sent to other county election offices Wednesday. Snohomish election workers did not open the mail and immediately turned it over to federal law enforcement. The office’s ballot count was not interrupted.

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