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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Inslee takes heat from fellow Democrat over in-person voter registration during pandemic

U.S. Army

Washington Governor Jay Inslee has generally earned praise for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But a recent decision has prompted tough words from a fellow Democrat.

Mason County Auditor Paddy McGuire is preparing to hold a special election later this month for fire and school district levies.

Beginning 18 days before the election, Washington law requires that he offer in-person voter registration.

But because of COVID-19, McGuire said the county has closed his building and he doesn’t think in-person registration is a safe idea. So, he asked the governor’s office to use its emergency powers to waive the requirement for this election. The answer back, he said, was “no.”

“I am terribly disappointed,” McGuire said Wednesday.

Adding to McGuire’s ire toward Inslee, whom he generally supports, is the fact state driver’s license offices – where most people register to vote – are temporarily closed because of the pandemic.

Credit Courtesy: Paddy McGuire
Courtesy: Paddy McGuire
Mason County Auditor Paddy McGuire says he's "terribly disappointed" that Gov. Jay Inslee denied his request to suspend in-person voter registration leading up to this month's special election because of coronavirus concerns.

“So, it’s not safe for his employees to register people to vote, but apparently it is safe for mine,” McGuire said.

In response, Inslee’s office said McGuire was the only county auditor who requested the governor suspend in-person registration. The governor’s office also said it consulted with Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, and they had a shared concern that “any irregularities in our application of the election laws would result in challenges to the election results.”

On Wednesday, Wyman confirmed she had concerns about suspending portions of the voter registration law. But she also noted that last month she and most of the state’s county auditors formally asked Inslee to postpone the entire election until a later date. 

Inslee, however, also denied that request. 

“This is the problem that I was trying to avoid by asking them to move it,” Wyman said.

While Washington votes by mail, Wyman and the auditors had raised a number of concerns about COVID-19 impeding the ability of local officials to pull off the election safely and efficiently.

Following the decision to let the election proceed, Inslee’s chief of staff, David Postman, said in a statement that some counties had backed off their request for a statewide cancelation. He also noted that some taxing districts were “insistent on going forward,” while others had made a local decision to delay the election.

“Rather than postponing the special April elections, we are working with Secretary Wyman on what could be done to help auditors manage elections during the outbreak,” Postman said in his statement.

Initially 18 counties had planned to hold elections on April 28. According to the Secretary of State’s office that’s now dropped to 10 counties and 20 taxing jurisdictions.

But McGuire in Mason County said he doesn’t have the power to cancel the election locally so long as his fire and school districts want to move ahead with a vote.

Inslee’s office said it’s spoken at length with McGuire about his concerns and offered “additional supports.”

Because his building is closed, McGuire said he may try to set up a curbside voter registration system.

“It’s not ideal, we’ll get our exercise on the stairs and I hope it’s legal, but it seems like the only way,” McGuire said.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."