Should We Elect to Elect the Elections Director?

Even if county voters give themselves the right to choose, will anyone run for the post?

If voters approve Amendment No. 1 to the King County Charter next month, they will for the first time be able to elect the county's elections director--in February. Yet the potential race for that post is one virtually no politician is considering. No politician, that is, except Julia Patterson, a seven-year veteran of the King County Council who is mulling a run for elections director should the ballot measure pass next month (the position is currently filled through appointment by the county executive and confirmation by the council). "I'm considering the idea," says Patterson (D-SeaTac), who currently serves as the council's chair. "My main interest is in making sure that we have a very professional and experienced person in that position." But while she's open to a bid, Patterson says she'd consider not running if someone else "who meets the needs of the people of King County" stepped forward. The Republican-backed push to make the elections director an elected position can be traced back to 2004, a year in which King County got national press for its incompetence in handling that election—highlighted by the fact that the governor's race was ultimately decided by a mere 133 votes after multiple recounts. Hundreds of absentee ballots went uncounted (735 turned up more than a month after Election Day in a locked cage in a SoDo warehouse), and hundreds more provisional ballots were counted without verifying voter eligibility. In 2005, Patterson co-sponsored a bill with Republican council member Kathy Lambert to reform the election system. Proposed changes included preventing provisional ballots from being tabulated until they are verified and centralizing county elections facilities to improve efficiency. "I have a great deal of political capital invested in making sure the elections division is successful," says Patterson. If Patterson were to move into the post, that would mean a salary boost from approximately $120,000 to more than $140,000 annually. Because she's on the council, Patterson says it's not appropriate for her to take a position on whether the charter amendment should pass, but the King County Democrats and County Executive Ron Sims are against it. They say that an appointed elections director is a more qualified one, and the holder of the office should be free from the politics of having to run for it. (Sims also opposed the 1996 move to elect the county sheriff.) Republicans argue, on the other hand, that Sims and the Democrats just want to retain the power to appoint. But support for the idea has crossed party lines; Democratic State Auditor Brian Sonntag, for one, has voiced his support for the measure. Patterson appears to be alone in her interest at this point. Democratic consultant Cathy Allen says that while she's "totally on the prowl for candidates," it's tough to get anyone to focus on anything beyond the November 4 election. "We're going to wake up November 5 and say, 'Oh my God. We've got to get going on this,'" Allen adds. Lori Sotelo, chair of the King County Republican Party, says that "we don't have any commitments at this point. I would imagine that things would jell quickly after the election." She adds that an elected elections director is "something we support pretty enthusiastically." Of course, voters still have to decide next month whether they want to make the position elective, but history shows that when you give voters the opportunity to vote for whether they want to vote for something, they usually say yes. The last time King County was posed this question, the charter amendment to make the sheriff an elected official, voters approved the measure by a margin of 57 to 43 percent. And in Pierce County last year, voters opted to make the Pierce County sheriff an elected post by a resounding 75 to 25 percent. King is the only county in Washington in which the person responsible for overseeing its elections is appointed; elsewhere, the auditor is elected to handle such duties. For now there are only two requirements for the King County job: Candidates must be registered to vote and reside in the county. More stipulations may soon follow. Also on the November ballot is another charter amendment (No. 4) which would give the county council the opportunity to set qualifications for a handful of executive positions, including the elections director. Allen says that while she's aware of Patterson's interest, the only potential candidate she's spoken with is state Sen. Joe McDermott (D-West Seattle)—and he's decided against it. "I've decided to focus on my work in the Senate," confirms McDermott, who serves on the Government Operations & Elections Committee. "Ultimately I decided I'd have more effect on that policy and on others in my current position." Furthermore, McDermott—or any incumbent state legislator, for that matter—is barred by state law from fundraising activities beginning December 13, or 30 days before the legislative session starts, thus making a run for a February election difficult. Former state Rep. Laura Ruderman is also a name who surfaces as a possibility, but she says that rumor is false. "My name comes up mistakenly on that list," Ruderman says. "I'm not interested. That's not where I want to put my efforts." Allen says former federal prosecutor and Eastside Republican organizer Diane Tebelius would be a formidable candidate. But Tebelius, who was legal counsel for the state Republican Party during the 2004 recount, says she hasn't considered it. "Let's wait for the voters to decide what they want to do with the post," she says. Also on the Republican side, Toby Nixon, a former state representative from Kirkland and one of the driving forces behind getting the charter amendment on the ballot, says he's been approached. "There's a lot of people who would like me to consider it, but I've made no commitments one way or the other," Says Nixon, who's currently running for his former House seat against incumbent Roger Goodman, "My full attention right now is on the race for 45th District representative." His decision whether to vie for the post himself notwithstanding, Nixon says, "It doesn't have to be a person who's an expert managing elections, but who has experience hiring a lot of people and can become familiar with elections law quickly. What's important is a commitment to obeying the law, transparency, and what the culture of the office is going to be." He adds that it would serve as an attractive stepping stone for a statewide executive position like Secretary of State. For her part, Tebelius isn't sure how attractive it would be. "If we have a perception that these elections are never fair," she says, "then I'm not sure what individual is going to want to take that office." While she's yet to commit to a run, Patterson has no trouble rattling off her bona fides for the job. "Our employee morale is high and things are working well, but the wrong person in that position could lose all those gains that have been made," she says, claiming that county-run elections have been virtually flawless since 2004. "I don't want that to happen." Patterson says she'd also run on her experience as an administrator. "Currently in my role as King County Council chair, I direct a branch of government that has 120 employees. It would be a natural transition to move over to be director of another King County department." She says she doesn't view the position as one of power, but of "management and oversight." Whoever runs for the post needs to be able to "hit the ground running," says Patterson. The election would be held on February 3, less than 10 weeks after the November election is certified. "There's not going to be a whole lot of time to put together a big media blitz and raise money," agrees Nixon. "Whoever runs will probably have to be somebody who has an established organization and contacts in the party that they can leverage for fundraising. It will be a very fast campaign. We could probably use that. People are really burnt out right now."

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