A Pair of Election Deniers Are Running To Take Over Election Offices In Washington

Two politicians who stoked distrust about elections are on the ballot in populous Washington counties in coming months, and ordinary election workers could be caught up in the fray.

Cameron Joseph   |    July 10, 2023

King County is hosting one of the two contested races for election administrator in Washington this year, alongside Snohomish County. (Photo from King County Elections/Facebook)

Editor’s note (October 2023): Robert Sutherland lost in Snohomish County ’s August primary. Julie Wise and Doug Basler will face off in King County on Nov. 7.

Robert Sutherland and Doug Basler have a lot in common.

The two Republicans have spent the better part of the past three years sowing doubt about Washington state’s election system, filing frivolous lawsuits that questioned the mail ballot system, and running (and losing) races for office.

And now, they’re both running against avowedly nonpartisan, experienced election administrators in an attempt to take control of two of their state’s largest county election offices.

Next month Sutherland is taking on Auditor Garth Fell in Snohomish County, which stretches from Seattle’s northern suburbs along the Puget Sound into more rural territory in the Cascade Mountains and is the state’s third most populous county; their showdown may extend into the fall’s general election. And in November, Basler is running against King County Director of Elections Julie Wise in the state’s most populous county that includes Seattle. Both are the only two contested races for election administrators in the state this year. 

The pair are long shots to actually win in their races. King County is heavily Democratic, and President Biden carried blue-leaning Snohomish County by 20 points in 2020. But their campaigns are elevating false claims about the election system—and as threats to election workers continue to grow around the nation, that could increase the chance that local election workers face harassment just for doing their jobs while undercutting voters’ trust that their elections are free and fair.

“I am deeply concerned,” Republican former Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed told Bolts. “I think that it would be a big, big mistake for the people Snohomish County to elect somebody who frankly doesn’t believe in the election system, has no trust and confidence in the election administrators that make it work, or trust and confidence in the laws and regulations that have been implemented over the years.”

Wise predicted that she would easily defeat Basler—there’s not much appetite locally for election denialism in a county that President Biden won by a 3-to-1 margin. But she warned that the ongoing candidacies from candidates like Basler contributes to the “hostile environment for public servants” that election workers face nationwide.

“Of course I worry that he would be able to sow distrust into other folks by these unfounded claims,” Wise told Bolts.

She said that one Republican election observer in last year’s race “was loud, disruptive, and was carrying a gun on her hip”; other local incidents included people driving trucks in an intimidating fashion around ballot drop boxes, and posting signs falsely claiming the drop boxes were under surveillance and that people we’re allowed to return others’ ballots (which is legal in Washington).

“It’s a very scary time to be an election administrator,” Wise said.

Wise and Fell both backed a new law passed by the Washington legislature that bans firearms at vote-tabulation sites.

“I am certainly concerned about misinformation, disinformation and the impact that can have on the safety and security of voters and our elections workers,” Fell told Bolts.

Election deniers Doug Basler (left) and Robert Sutherland (right) are running to lead elections in King County and Snohomish County, respectively. (Photos from Doug Basler/Facebook and Robert J. Sutherland for State Representative)

Basler has promised that if he wins he’ll bring in “citizen oversight and balanced audits” of the county’s elections and wants the county to use “paper ballots hand counted at the precinct level on election day,” even though hand-counting ballots is incredibly slow and has repeatedly been shown to be less accurate than machine counts

Sutherland has said he wants to make voters’ ballots, ballot copies and “cast vote records” available for public analysis, even though the secretary of state’s office has advised against it because it could risk publicly exposing who people voted for. 

“Not allowing citizens to see for themselves the ballot copies and compare them to the CVR’s is adding to a greater distrust among voters and for this trend to be reversed new leadership is needed,” Sutherland said in an email to Bolts.

Their campaigns are part of an ongoing crusade to question the state election system’s integrity.

After the 2020 elections, Basler and Sutherland joined Washington Election Integrity Coalition United, an umbrella group for election-denying efforts, in a flurry of lawsuits that sought access to ballots, information, and so-called “forensic audits” along the lines of Arizona’s sham election audit.

Every single one of the lawsuits has now been tossed out of court. The final one, in which Basler and the group demanded Wise’s office supply them with access to all of King County’s ballots, was rejected in mid-June by a judge who ruled they failed to “set forth specific facts showing that there is genuine issue for trial.” 

Sutherland ran for and lost races for Congress in 2014 and 2016 before winning a seat in the statehouse from a conservative rural district split between Snohomish and Skagit Counties in 2018. 

He quickly made a name for himself as a hardliner and conspiracy theorist, attending an armed militia protest in Snohomish that was based on false claims that Antifa was coming to town, and leading a number of protests against COVID-19 restrictions—including a rally where he packed a pistol and said that if Democratic Governor Jay Inslee sent “men with guns after us for going fishing, we’ll see what a revolution looks like.”

He won reelection with 60 percent of the vote in 2020—and immediately amped up his rhetoric, declaring right after Election Day that “It looks like the Democrats are cheating” in the count.

He was even more incendiary in a series of Facebook posts, outright refusing the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Sutherland posted on Facebook that it would be “righteous” if Trump used the military to hold onto his presidency by force. “Prepare for war,” he later wrote in December 2020, according to the Seattle Times. “Joe Biden is not now, nor will ever be my President.”

He used taxpayer funds to attend MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s voting fraud conspiracy symposium in South Dakota in 2021, visited Arizona’s chaotic sham audit that same year, demanded that Washington hold a similar audit for its election and sponsored legislation to end the state’s longtime mail voting system. He also encouraged residents to sue Snohomish County with unproven allegations of voter fraud.

Sutherland was formally reprimanded by the House in early 2022 and eventually fined $2,500 for swearing and screaming at a state capitol director of security who, following the requirements then in place for all lawmakers, refused him entry into the state capitol in Olympia because he wouldn’t take COVID test.

In 2022, a moderate Republican ran against Sutherland and beat him in the all-party general election by a 16-point margin.

But that didn’t deter Sutherland. He kicked off his campaign for Snohomish County auditor in late April with a fundraiser headlined by Seth Keshel, a former Army intelligence officer who has turned himself into a leading figure in the election-denying movement with a poorly reasoned analysis that claims to show Joe Biden couldn’t possibly have won the number of votes that he did in 2020.

Basler has also been a vocal, though even less successful, candidate for office.

He ran against Democratic U.S. Representative Adam Smith in a staunchly blue Seattle-area congressional district in 2022.

“I have questions about the integrity of our voting system, particularly in King County, Washington,” Basler declared during his one debate with Smith in 2022. “Mail-in voting is a disaster.”

After his loss to Smith, Basler requested a hand recount of votes in two precincts—even though he’d won just 28 percent of the districtwide vote in the election.

Basler and Sutherland were among the many election-denying candidates who lost election in Washington last year. Sutherland was one of four incumbent GOP state representatives who went down to defeat after attacking against the election system. And in one of the state’s most high-profile races, MAGA champion Joe Kent lost the general election in a GOP-leaning House seat after defeating moderate GOP Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler, who had voted to impeach President Donald Trump, in the primary. But a few did win, including an election-questioning candidate who defeated an incumbent for Mason County Auditor.

Basler didn’t respond to interview requests for this story. Sutherland declined an interview, but emailed along a written Q&A in which he said the 2020 election was “a prime example of how to lose the confidence and trust of voters” and attacked Fell for not allowing him access to the actual voter ballots.

“I traveled the country learning about elections and some potential vulnerabilities with mail-in ballots and tabulation machines and as a result I will bring new ideas to the auditor’s office in order to help improve the accuracy of our elections and to help regain the trust of the voters. And I alone will be committed to creating greater transparency regarding our elections,” he said.

On his website, Basler declares that “It’s no secret that a large cross section of the voting public does have questions regarding the overall election process,” and accuses Wise of eroding public trust by “decreasing transparency and branding anyone who has questions as a conspiracy theorist.”

Sutherland is running against incumbent Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell (left) and Basler will face King County Director of Elections Julie Wise (right). (Photos from garthfell.com, King County Elections)

Basler is the only candidate who’s filed to run against Wise, and in Washington State’s open primary system, the top two candidates move on to the general election, so the two are sure to face off in November. 

Sutherland is facing off with Fell and a third candidate, Democratic-affiliated candidate Cindy Gobel, in the Aug. 1 nonpartisan primary. The two candidates who gather the most votes will move on to a November general election. 

None of the candidates will have any party affiliation on the ballot, which means Sutherland won’t be identified as a Republican.

Fell, who won a close race against Gobel in 2019, called the primary a “competitive race” and said he wasn’t confident in which two candidates would emerge to the general election this time around.

Gobel, a longtime election worker and former colleague of Fell’s, said the election conspiracy theories pushed by people like Sutherland had “really hurt the election community—in 2020, we as election workers, we took a huge mental health hit.”

She said she would likely not vote for either of her opponents in the general election if she didn’t make the runoff, but predicted that her fellow Democrats would go with “the lesser of the two evils” and back Fell.

Christian Sinderman, a Washington-based Democratic campaign consultant who has worked for both Fell and Wise in the past, said that he saw zero chance that Basler could win. 

He predicted that Sutherland’s name recognition and support from “the hardened MAGA base” would be enough to propel him through the multicandidate primary on Aug. 1 to make the ballot in November—but thought Sutherland’s chances in that race were vanishingly small.

“It would take some extreme event between now and November for him to be viable,” he said.

And while the election conspiracists aren’t going away anytime soon, Wise said she hopes that further electoral setbacks will continue to erode election-deniers’ claims in Washington.

“I do think this is sort of the last gasp for election deniers to run in these races,” she said.

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