This week’s Q&A is with Secretary of State Sam Reed. I interviewed Reed in his office this morning, and have included the entire interview below.
Q. What are the challenges facing your office now?
A. Right now, the number one would be this Referendm 71. We’re checking the signatures on petitions now. One reason it’s a challenge is that they are very close – they’re going to be very close to qualifying – either just a little under or a little over. So both sides are just watching this intently and their observers are of course very nervous and questioning us. And we even expect some litigation to come of it. That is clearly our biggest challenge.
The second big challenge, which, in the long run is more significant and a higher priority is the Washington State Heritage Center, where we’re going to have a new building on the capitol campus housing the state archives, state library, a museum, there will be a place for a learning center for children. And that passed the Legislature in 2007 but then, because of the economy taking a dive and the bond market getting dicey and some of the fees supporting it getting dicey, the Legislature decided to delay it. So we are working very hard to move ahead and be ready by the 2010 Legislative session.
Q. How much funding was delayed?
A. $141 million. They said (the money would be delayed) two years and we would like to see it happen even sooner.
The original proposal was to put the building over where the general administration building is now. That is one of the things that we’re looking at is location – there’s a few alternative locations. (The GA building) was delaying us because the problem is you have to tear down the building, move all the people, find places for them. That alone was causing some delay.
Q. Back to Referendum 71: You said you were expecting a lawsuit. Can you say more about that?
A. We think it’s very much a possibility that whoever prevails here or doesn’t, the other side will want to challenge it. If it’s that close, they just would hope that judges would see it differently. That happens in recounts, that happens whenever there’s a close call.
Q. The error rate for R71 signatures is now around 10 percent — and in order for it to qualify for the November ballot, it needs to stay near that low. You’ve said you expect the error rate to rise. Can you explain why that would be the case?
A. The percentage is lower earlier on than it is later on because you start finding more duplicates. So the percentage will probably rise … Since these petitions are out a number of months, (people) tend to sign them more than once because they forget which petitions they’ve signed.
Q. So how does the signature verification process work?
A. When we check these signatures, we go to the original voter registration. If they are a registered voter, we see if it was in fact the person who signed it. Those signatures that are not valid are either voters who aren’t registered or the signature just doesn’t match, which could mean that it’s a different person who signed it, or it could mean that the person’s signature changed. The counties are very vigilant about it. They check at each election and send out cards if the signatures change.
(After the interview, Reed said there are currently 30 trained signature checkers working in the Olympia facility.)
Q. What are your goals for the next year?
A. Obviously the Heritage Center is a very high priority. The second thing and, really, for this term of office, we’ve set a theme of civic engagement. It’s obvious in the elections area — registering to vote, participating in elections and running for office. But also in elections they came up with the theme of “Find your one thing.” We go out and speak to youth groups and colleges, and I really encourage them to find they’re passion, what it is you really care about, whether it’s coaching soccer, teaching Sunday school … to get them engaged in the community. From that, get them registered to vote.
In Corporations and Licensing, we’ve come up with a program, “Corporations for Community,” where we recognize a couple of corporations each year that are particularly outstanding — not just donating money, but their staff members are in the community and their top management are involved.
Q. How has the state budget affected your office?
A. It’s had a big impact on our office because we’re part of general government administration — a lot of our budget is “discretionary spending.” So we’ve taken very dep cuts, I think it’s 19 percent. Our staffing levels have gone from 363 down to 307 or so.
So we have people who are having to do two different jobs. I don’t want it to slow us down in terms of moving ahead in these other areas. We’re still moving ahead, I think, and we’re going to do quite well in terms of implementing these things.
We had more staff focusing on the Heritage Center, so we’re pulling from other areas of the office.
It’s very much engaging some of our key staff members. The assistant Secretary of State is spending a lot of time on this.
Q. Anything else your office is working on that you’d like to talk about?
A. In both archives and the state library, we are working on major efforts to digitize records and such and get them stored in archives. We now have 78 million public records that are available to the public. That is a huge effort. Now, the Library of Congress is giving us a grant because our state is so far ahead of other states, so seven other states are using our archives in Cheney as well.
In the State Library, we are doing an effort tied into heritage — we have a couple of people going out to rural libraries to capture some of the rural history and get some information from the local people, scan it in and digitize it.
And we have a Heritage Center Project called the “Legacy Project.” We are doing oral histories of major figures who are kind of making history in our state out of the executive branch, judicial branch and private people who are having a big impact. We have eight on the site.
Q. Back to Referendum 71: You’ve said it’s too close to call right now with a 10 percent error rate. When will you feel comfortable making the call that it’s either made the ballot or not?
A. We actually physically have to get to the point of either rejecting so many that they couldn’t possibly make it or of getting to the number where they can make it. For other initiatives and referenda, we can actually use random sampling (of signatures), but when it’s this close, this really means we’re going to have to get to that point physically.
Q. And how’s the new, eight-days-prior-to-an-election voter registration?
A. We’ll see. We are just implementing this. I don’t think this year it’s going to be a problem. The limit had been 15 days before, but we think because of the technology, because we have a statewide voter registration database, we should be able to do that. The primary and general this year will be the first time (with the later deadline). We don’t anticipate any problems.