The Monkey Wrench Pang

Ron Sims must pull off a perfectly run election, and his staffers are concerned about sabotage.

Ron Sims' re-election hangs by a thread. Despite missteps and mismanagement, the King County exec should be in a strong position for re-election. He's a blue politician in a blue-to-purple county, a two-term incumbent who has drawn a comparatively little known and lackluster opponent in Republican Dave Irons.

But Sims has both real and potential problems that are approaching fast as Labor Day nears. With the Sept. 20 primary election, he has very little time to fix—or even appear to fix—some serious systemic problems with the elections department that were identified by his own independent commission and other critics. The county's elections department is so screwed up and demoralized that they still cannot even find a qualified candidate interested in the job of elections superintendent. Late last week, six Republican County Council members, led by Sims' opponent Irons, asked Sims to get outside help running the primary from Secretary of State Sam Reed.

That doesn't bode well. If there are any major screwups in the primary, Sims could find himself taking the blame from an angry public in the November general election. In short, Sims could lose his office if the county screws up one more election. The September primary will be the first test since a judge in Wenatchee settled the disputed gubernatorial election of 2004 in a court case that exposed many of the county's failings amid open partisan warfare over the elections process. It's also the first vote since Sims' own commission tattooed the words "accountable" on his forehead.

One indication of the tension and stakes was a response to last week's Mossback column (see "A Big SWAT for Ron Sims," Aug. 3), which detailed how the Independent Task Force on Elections clearly put the stinking carcass of the county's problems at Sims' feet. The day after the column appeared, Sims' chief of staff, Kurt Triplett, and communications director, Carolyn Duncan, came down to Mossback's Western Avenue stump to convey in person a message—that they are well aware it is their job to restore democracy and confidence in democracy in King County. The short version: "We get it," followed by a list of what they are doing about it.

First, the county is actively working to fill 14 new positions in the elections department, positions approved by the County Council, including hiring quality control specialists who will assist in the handling, sorting, and counting of ballots.

Second, Sims is redeploying key managers within King County government— "the best and brightest," his aides say—to take over some of the functions that would ordinarily be handled by Dean Logan, the much- criticized head of the Elections, Records, and Licensing Services Division. Instead of firing Logan, who is by accounts a poor manager but a knowledgeable election "technician," they are off-loading many of his duties onto an ad hoc group of senior county managers so Logan can essentially fill the vacant superintendent of elections role. Those lending management muscle include Bob Burns, deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

Third, heads will roll. "The people who need to go will go," promises Triplett. They are talking with the human resources department, the prosecuting attorney's office, and labor unions to ensure that they weed out the elections department's bad apples by the book. That means, undoubtedly, a slow process, but they promise there will be news on this front very soon.

Fourth, Sims has embraced the task force's plea to hire a turnaround team, though it won't be in place before the primary. The problem is, no one knows what such a team looks like. It's not like there are outside consulting firms that specialize in turning around elections offices. How about someone who specializes in shock therapy?

Sims hopes to have his new-look primary election team ready by Monday, Aug. 15.

Triplett likens trying to remake the elections department to performing heart surgery while the patient is playing tennis: There are so many elections (counting all the small, local elections the county runs during the year) that it's hard to make systemic technological, personnel, and cultural changes on the fly.

What adds to the risk is that the "doctor" performing heart surgery has been charged with malpractice. Sims is trying to fix things, but with very little goodwill from his partisan critics and an uneasiness on the part of the general electorate.

Sims' aides worry that the bar for success is too high. Not only must the election be 100 percent accurate—and the chances of that are slim—but Sims might be blamed if there is even the perception of screwups. If a bunch of county Republicans, say, decided to claim falsely that they hadn't received their absentee ballots, well, it could be film at 11 on TV about yet another "blown" election. In addition, there is the intense scrutiny of partisan critics. Triplett and Duncan note that election gadfly and Irons-supporter Stefan Sharkansky, the Sound Politics blogger, has applied to be a poll worker and that state GOP party Chair Chris Vance has previously vowed to "harass" the county.

Asked if they were worried that the GOP might try to monkey-wrench the primary, Triplett replied frankly, "Yes, we are."

Vance says there is no reason to worry: "There is no strategy to screw up the election in order to make Ron Sims look incompetent. He's already doing a good job of that on his own."

Is the fear of sabotage realistic, delusional, or a symptom of how far everyone's confidence in fair play has eroded? At the very least, it's an indicator that Sims is now operating with no margin for error.

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