A Profile: Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed
After 12 years, Reed set to retire at end of term in Jan. 2013
Washington’s Sam Reed isn’t spending his last few months in office resting on his laurels.
After 12 years overseeing elections for the State of Washington and before that running elections for 20 years in Thurston County, Reed is preparing to retire at the end of his term in January 2013.
But before that, he’s got a lot to get done.
Besides overseeing a smorgasbord of local, state, federal and special elections, Reed has also embarked on his final college civics tour — an endeavor that has the 70-year-old visiting 45 Washington college campuses throughout the spring.
"The college civics tour is always fun for me and students, and it's a great way to help get them more interesting in voting and being involved," Reed said in a press release. "I really look forward to visiting campuses across the state."
In addition to the annual college civics tour, during his tenure Reed oversaw the implementation of the state’s new top-two primary system, helped the entire state transition to a vote-by-mail state, and was honored with a Gonzaga Law Medal for his handling of the 2004 gubernatorial race.
Reed wasn’t just active in Washington elections, but also in the field of elections nationwide. He is a past president of the National Association of Secretaries of State and served as an advisor to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
“Sam Reed is, in my opinion, the model of what a Secretary of State should be: a thoughtful source for new ideas, a firm and steady voice for nonpartisanship and integrity and, above all, a friend and ally both to voters and to the women and men who conduct elections across his state – and across the nation,” said Doug Chapin, director, Program for Excellence in Election Administration Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota “He will be missed but I am grateful for his service and for the legacy he leaves to the profession of election administration.”
ElectionlineWeekly caught up with Secretary Reed for a quick Q&A before he had to head off to another college visit.
After 12 years in office, you’ll be retiring in January. Why now? Why did you choose not to run again?
It has been such a deep honor and privilege to work for more than 40 years in a field I love, but it is time for me to have more flexibility in terms of my service and to spend more time with my family. Also, after 12 years, it is time for new ideas and a fresh face in the Office of Secretary of State. I wish my successor well, and know these will be amazing years ahead, as the new Secretary builds on the reforms and successes we have built together in this state, Republicans and Democrats and independents.
What would you say has been the biggest change you have seen in elections during your tenure?
In a state that is home to Microsoft and many high-tech companies, we’ve been called America’s most “wired” state and I really have experienced that in connection with the administration of elections and the explosion of really good, convenient voter information that is available at the click of a mouse. Technology has changed how we do business – and for the better. We have a wonderful Voter Registration Database that we can scrub regularly. We have amazing online voter resources, including digital and video voters’ guides, and people enjoy registering online, by mail and visiting our personalized voter vault we call MyVote. We are crosschecking voter registrations across state lines, and we have other improvements up our sleeve – including a cool partnership of our state with Facebook and Microsoft to drive more people to our voter registration website. Eventually, I would think we’ll see online voting, once the process is secure and accountable.
How we vote has also changed over the course of the last decade. We have switched entirely to vote-by-mail, and it is quite popular. We also pioneered a “Top 2 Primary” that has been adopted by California voters and spurred interest in other states.
What was the most difficult time/issue you faced during your tenure?
Easily, the biggest challenge was the 2004 gubernatorial recount after the closest finish in our state history – 133 votes – and two recounts, followed by an election challenge that lasted half a year! The election was upheld, but the close scrutiny uncovered myriad shortcomings that needed attention. We used this as a huge “teachable moment” and implemented bipartisan reform – over 1,000 changes in legislation and administrative code.
What do you feel was your greatest accomplishment and why?
I am very proud of our office and our county election departments working so diligently to restore voter confidence that was battered in the 2004 election. At the end of the day, people say they will remember the integrity of this office and that we did not once play partisan politics with election administration. That was really a remarkable period of our state’s modern political history.
I also am very proud that we were able to achieve a wide-open primary process that the people want. After the blanket primary was thrown out, we were able to work with the Legislature and with a voter initiative to create a similar Top 2 process that I recommend to all states. We went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to preserve the Top 2 and got a 7-2 opinion. Likewise we got a strong Supreme Court ruling on “Doe v. Reed” that was a landmark public records case that upheld our belief that initiative petitions are releasable public records. We struck a blow for transparency in government.
Is there anything specific that you still hope to accomplish as secretary of state before leaving office in January?
As part of my “farewell tour,” I am stressing civility, moderation and civic engagement. I find that audiences are hungry for a message that takes issue with the strident, nasty politics that seem to have gripped Congress and infected some of our legislatures. People want problem-solvers to get serious, and to leave campaign rhetoric and vilification behind when it comes time to govern.
I have high hopes for an excellent 2012 election cycle, with record registration and turnout quite possible in our state. We may vote on gay marriage, marijuana decriminalization, and tax limits, all on one ballot. We have big turnover in Congress, statewide offices and legislative races, so there will be a generational feel to the election. People are really engaged, and that’s very good.
I also plan to continue promoting a new Washington State Heritage Center on our Capitol Campus that will bring together the State Archives, State Library, an education center, and exhibits that will describe our amazing political process and rich heritage. That will give us some context for when we have elections and choose our leaders.
What will you miss most about being secretary of state?
I have to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed public service and dealing with all of the public policy issues, all the players and the process, the citizens and citizen engagement, legislators, the news media, the other Secretaries of State, the County Auditors who run the elections, and all the rest. As an old political science grad from Washington State University, I have really enjoyed that part of it – never a dull moment!
As an expert in the field of elections, where do you see the administration of elections going in this country?
I think we will continue to see this trend of everything being electronic and digital, including online voting some day. I don’t know how long that will take, but I think it will happen.
I also think we will continue to see decentralization of election administration, with the role of state and local government growing.
What’s next for you, besides being able to sleep in on election day?
I plan to stay involved in my community and my state, as a “senior statesman,” working on non-profit boards and commissions, doing a bit of writing, maybe teaching and speaking, and definitely I’ll be talking about civility, civic involvement and political moderation. I hope to mentor candidates. And I really look forward to spending more time with my wife, Margie, and my grandsons and the rest of the family. I am curious to see what the next stage of my life looks like! I’m in great health and, right now I’m feeling very, very grateful and content.
Editor’s Note: In the coming weeks electionlineWeekly will also profile Missouri’s Robin Carnahan who chose not to seek reelection after two terms as the Show Me State’s top elections official.