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Envelopes containing 'white powdery substance' stall ballot counts at elections offices across Washington state

caption: Firefighters respond to suspicious envelopes mailed to the King County Elections office in Renton, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, the day after the November general election.
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Firefighters respond to suspicious envelopes mailed to the King County Elections office in Renton, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, the day after the November general election.

Suspicious mailers have been reported at multiple elections offices throughout Washington state, including the King County elections headquarters in Renton, which was evacuated Wednesday. Traces of fentanyl were reportedly discovered in one envelope.

“This morning, our office received a piece of mail — not a ballot envelope but a regular a piece of mail through the regular mail stream — that contained a white powdery substance in it," said King County Elections spokesperson Halei Watkins from the parking lot of the Renton headquarters. "We immediately isolated and evacuated the building ... Hazmat and law enforcement are on site.”

RELATED: WA Secretary of State calls suspicious envelopes 'terrorism' after election center evacuations

Watkins said ballot processing will be delayed. Election night was Tuesday. She said the elections office prepared for this type of situation with drills earlier this year.

After tests were performed on the powder, Renton police reported that traces of fentanyl were found. The police department said it will be coordinating with the FBI to investigate further.

Washington's Secretary of State Office reports that envelopes containing powder also arrived in the mail at Pierce, Skagit, and Spokane county elections offices Wednesday morning. Each office was evacuated and ballot-counting operations were interrupted.

"She just barely peeked inside, and she saw that there was a powder," said Skagit County spokesperson Jenn Rogers, talking about the worker who discovered the envelope at the auditor's office in Mount Vernon. "So she immediately bagged up the envelope with the powder inside, it didn't dump out anywhere, and she reported it to the authorities, and they evacuated the office."

In Tacoma, the envelope that arrived at the Pierce County Elections Office came with a message that stated, "End the election now," KING5 reported. Officials concluded the powder was baking powder.

Secretary of State Steve Hobbs called the incidents "acts of terrorism."

According to Derick Nunnally with Washington's Office of the Secretary of State, this is not the first time suspicious envelopes have arrived at elections offices. Envelopes containing powder were sent to the King County and Okanogan County elections offices during the Aug. 1 primary. The envelope sent to King County at that time also had traces of fentanyl present. The Okanogan County envelope was not harmful.

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“I would hate to believe that this was a kind of new normal. It is certainly an extraordinary situation,” Nunnally told KUOW. “We had two counties in August, King County and Okanagan County, each receive a suspicious substance at their elections offices around the time of the August primary election, and we took all precautions then. Buildings were evacuated. Tests were conducted. No one experienced any harm.”

“Election workers are, due to the charged climate that we live in, extraordinary workers performing very admirable service jobs to keep our democracy going," he added. "They serve an extremely valuable function for our society, our form of government, and the participation in our process, ensuring that we have an efficient process. It all relies on folks who are opening the envelopes, who are counting the ballots, and we need to do everything we can to ensure that they have everything they need to do that job very safely."

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