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Skagit ballot count back on track after fentanyl scare

FBI investigating suspicious letters in four Washington counties

By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

The Skagit County elections office has resumed ballot counts amid an FBI investigation into an envelope laced with fentanyl that was sent to the office the day after Election Day.

Skagit County Auditor Sandy Perkins offered few details on the piece of mail one of her workers discovered on Wednesday, Nov. 8. She did confirm that a preliminary determination by a hazmat team found “a trace of fentanyl” in the mailing, and that no one in her office was hurt. She declined to comment on the origin of the letter or whether it included a message.

“The FBI has taken over the investigation, and they’ve asked us not to comment on it,” Perkins said.

In a statement on Tuesday, Nov. 14, Federal Bureau of Investigations Public Affairs Officer Steve Bernd said the agency responded to “multiple incidents involving suspicious letters sent to ballot counting centers in Washington state.” 

“As this is an ongoing matter, we do not have any further comment,” Bernd said.

The Secretary of State reported on Nov. 8 that elections offices in Skagit, King, Pierce and Spokane counties received envelopes with “unknown powdery substances.”

The suspicious envelopes in King and Pierce counties included a message that read, in part, “End elections now,” according to the Associated Press. The political motivations of the sender or senders were unclear. 

Offices were evacuated and ballot counts were disrupted in all four counties. 

Perkins said the envelope that arrived in Skagit County was discovered around 11:30 a.m. Nov. 8, and ballot counting was suspended for the remainder of that day. All other auditor’s office services also were suspended that day, including recording and licensing.

Since Nov. 8, Skagit County’s ballot count has gotten “back on track,” Perkins said, and the county’s elections will be certified on Nov. 28, as required by state law

“It’s so unfortunate, this whole thing, and we’re just very grateful no one fell ill,” she said.

Whatcom County elections received no suspicious packages around the Nov. 7 election, Auditor Diana Bradrick said on Tuesday, Nov. 14. But after the incidents in the other counties, she said her office contacted the county health department and the sheriff’s office, asking for guidance on how to handle a suspicious package.

The health department will provide her office with a “detailed written policy,” Bradrick said.

For now, anyone in the elections office who handles mail will wear gloves and a mask. Mail is handled in a separate room, away from the ballots, so that anything suspicious won’t force a shutdown of the ballot count, Bradrick said.

She said the sheriff’s office instructed her office to immediately put down any mail that appears suspicious, leave the room and close the door, and call 911 immediately.

“It’s very serious,” Bradrick said. “It concerns staff, of course, all of us who handle mail.”

While fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin, touching or breathing the drug is highly unlikely to cause overdose, according to the state Department of Health.

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