This past November the citizens of King County passed a charter amendment to elect their county Elections Director, a post previously filled by executive appointment. The slate of six candidates for the Feb. 3 special election met Thursday night for a forum to jostle for the $146,000 annual position. Incumbent Sherril Huff is being challenged by David Irons, Julie Kempf, Bill Anderson, Christopher Clifford, and State Sen. Pam Roach (R - Auburn).
This will be the first election with all mail-in balloting, which was implemented largely as a cost-cutting measure last year. This race will likely have relatively low turnout; with a predicted 32 percent of registered voters returning their ballots.
The questions presented to the candidates Thursday night by the League of Women Voters of Seattle garnered rather uniform responses. All of the candidates promised improved security and transparency in the elections process. Sen. Roach declared that "[The public will] be able go in and look at the emails people are writing, you'll have absolute access."
Irons, Kempf, Huff and Roach all have some measure of elections experience. Bill Anderson contended that his extensive banking experience qualified him for the office and Chris Clifford claimed that his leadership and political watchdog record made him the most trustworthy candidate. Only Senator Roach and Cris Clifford had any glint of fire in their voices.
Clifford focused much of his comments on Huff, saying she does not meet the in-county residency requirement -- a claim he brought to the elections canvassing board earlier this month.
Roach is a longtime state senator for south King County, her current term ending in 2011; while this is a nonpartisan race, she is the major contender with Republican ties. Bearing a reputation for colorful and distempered behavior in office, Roach was calm and collected at Thursday's forum.
Sherril Huff is a former Kitsap County auditor and is currently the King County Elections Director after being appointed this summer. Huff now claims to live in the county and appears to have established a residence. The Democratic Party declined to publicly endorse her, acknowledging the office's nonpartisan nature; regardless, she is the favorite to win with implicit Democratic support. Two other Democrats -- Ellen Hansen, former King County elections manager, and Ross Baker, former County Council chief of staff -- dropped out of the race after attending a meeting with Huff and local party leaders.
The candidates did differ slightly on the issues of felon voting rights, the right of homeless people to vote, and fundraising. All the candidates said they would follow the current laws, requiring people who are homeless to have a verifiable address in which to receive ballots. The argument here centers on how broad the definition of a "residence" should be. Huff advocated the broad definition currently in use by the Washington Secretary of State: "If [an intersection] is where they lay their head at night than that is [their residence]." Anderson and Kempf also supported broader definitions of a residence to better facilitate voting, while Roach, Irons, and Clifford more vaguely claimed to support the homeless franchise.
The restoration of voting rights to felons was a relatively divisive issue. Kempf was the most liberal, advocating that voting rights be automatically restored when the offender's jail time and financial obligations have been met. "To be perfectly blunt, we have differences in sentencing in this state, and there are still racial issues. Different people coming from different communities are more likely to receive jail time," said Kempf. She was also sympathetic to the idea of returning voting rights automatically when the offender is released regardless of finical obligations.
Irons promised to streamline the process of regaining voting rights and remove the need for an attorney. The other candidates said the letter of the law should be followed, requiring an attorney to file a petition after all of the offender's obligations had been met.
Fundraising and support were the issue where the candidates expressed the most differences. Groups that support or fund candidates may have undue influence on the voting process, although all candidates claim otherwise. Only Bill Anderson is refusing all donations, saying "I will be beholden to no one."
Senator Roach defended her Republican ties and questioned the feasibility of winning the race without major backing. "Any viable candidate here knows there are certain groups that are going to be supporting them. In order to win this race, you are going to have to have several hundred thousand dollars."
Ballots are being sent to King County registered voters this week, and must be postmarked or dropped into one of 10 drop-boxes on or before Election Day.