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Vote by mail in Washington is the one constant amid COVID-19

In this March 10, 2020, file photo, King County Election workers collect ballots from a drop box in the Washington State presidential primary in Seattle. On Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, state voters will decide which candidates for governor, U.S. House and dozens of other races advance to November amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. The top two vote getters advance to the fall, regardless of party, under Washington's 'Top 2' system. (AP Photo/John Froschauer, File)

Heading into Tuesday’s primary, Washington’s nearly 4.6 million voters received their ballot in the mail, just as they have in previous elections, long before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19.

Washington’s Secretary of State race by the numbers
Washington state Attorney General race by the numbers
Washington state governor’s race by the numbers
State superintendent’s race by the numbers
Lt. Gubernatorial race by the numbers

And voters have quite a bit to decide as they narrow down the candidates in an election where the top two vote getters advance to the November election, regardless of party: a governor’s race that has drawn 35 opponents to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who is seeking a third term; a lieutenant governor’s office that became an open seat once current Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib announced he was leaving to become a Jesuit priest; and an open seat in the 10th Congressional District that has drawn 19 candidates after Democratic U.S. Rep. Denny Heck announced he was retiring, and then subsequently announced a run for lieutenant governor.

Inslee dropped his presidential bid last year and decided instead to seek a rare third gubernatorial term. Governors in Washington state aren’t subject to term limits, though most haven’t served more than two terms. The last three-term governor in Washington was Republican Gov. Dan Evans, who served from 1965 until 1977.

Of the nearly three dozen challengers Inslee faces, a handful of Republicans have raised the most in their effort: Joshua Freed, the former mayor of Bothell; Loren Culp, the police chief of Republic, in eastern Washington; anti-tax initiative promoter Tim Eyman; Yakima doctor Raul Garcia; and state Sen. Phil Fortunato.

In a Crosscut/Elway poll conducted July 11-15, 46% surveyed said they were inclined to vote for Inslee. Of his contenders, Culp had the most support at 14%, followed by 6% for Garcia, with 24% of those polled undecided. A Republican has not occupied the governor’s office in more than three decades.

All 10 of the state’s U.S. House seats are on the ballot, but Heck’s seat is the only one that won’t have an incumbent seeking another two-year term. Democrats currently hold seven of the seats, and Republicans hold three.

The open seat for lieutenant governor — best known for presiding over the Senate during the legislative session — has drawn 11 candidates, including Heck, Democratic Sen. Marko Liias and Ann Davison Sattler and Marty McClendon, both Republicans.

The only two statewide positions held by Republicans — secretary of state and treasurer — are expected to be competitive in the fall. Secretary of State Kim Wyman is expected to face Democratic state Rep. Gael Tarleton in November, and Treasurer Duane Davidson and his Democratic challenger, state Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, are the only two candidates on the primary ballot and will automatically advance to the general election.

Voters will also weigh in on their local legislative races, with all 98 state House seats and 26 of the Senate’s 49 seats on the primary ballot. Democrats hold a 28-21 majority in the Senate and a 57-41 edge in the House.

Voter turnout in the state primary is usually low, and turnout in the last comparable primary in 2016 was just under 35%. But a spokeswoman for Wyman said that counties are being advised to plan for turnout that could potentially exceed 60%.

Because ballots can be deposited in local drop boxes or postmarked up until Tuesday, results may take days to come in as the ballots arrive in elections offices throughout the week.

The secretary of state’s office distributed nearly $10 million the state received under the coronavirus federal stimulus package to the 39 county election officials to be used for COVID-19 modifications for the primary and general elections. Some funding has been used to create drive-thru and curbside registration and voting opportunities and to acquire larger spaces to allow election employees and voters to socially distance.

In King County — the state’s largest, and includes Seattle — changes to the elections facility include barriers and plexiglass, one-directional aisles and hallways and an upgrade to the HVAC system for improved air recycling. In Pierce County, their elections facility is spread between two buildings to ensure social distancing.

In Yakima County, one of the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus, elections officials there just finished renovation this month to provide adequate spacing and barriers for more than a dozen elections employees.

Yakima County Auditor Charles Ross said that while the main impact of the pandemic is reflected in their newly configured office, and other safety protocols, such as masks, his hope is that for voters, their experience won’t be any different from previous years.

“The voters of Washington state are used to voting from home,” he said.

By RACHEL LA CORTE, Associated Press

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