Anyone who insists elections produce better public servants ought to take a look at the current race for King County Elections director.
And, like it or not, you will be taking a look at the race for King County Elections director, thanks to the fact that you, the voters, decided that the elections director should be an elected position. Congratulations.
Now meet your candidates: A Renton schoolteacher and part-time San Diego resident who's challenging another candidate's residency; a former King County Council member who allegedly beat his own mother; a disgraced former elections director who was accused of assaulting a police officer with her car; a volatile state senator who allegedly pulled a gun on a staffer; the current elections director, who just moved to King County; and a bank manager named Bill Anderson who has no government or elections experience.
Of the six, Sherril Huff, the current elections director, is clearly the most qualified. Huff, who's been in the office for less than a year, is widely credited with turning around an elections office plagued by scandal, lost ballots, and late results. However, keeping Huff would mean preserving the status quo—and that, some have argued, would contradict the message of change voters sent in November.
If that isn't absurd enough for you, consider this: The elections-director election, set for next February, is winner take all, meaning that whoever gets the most votes gets the job. (Typically, elections are preceded by a primary that winnows larger fields down to two.) In a field of six, it would be easy to see a candidate winning with less than 20 percent of the total vote.
How many votes might such a slim plurality represent? You have to go back a while to find a comparable off-season, off-year election—to May 2003, when 270,000 people turned out to vote on a countywide parks levy. If a similar number turned out to vote in the six-way race in February, that could mean the elections director of King County—a county of nearly two million—would have the support of just 50,000 people.
Electing our elections director may be more democratic than letting the county council appoint her, but there's no reason to think it will result in better oversight of the troubled office. Instead of stability, what we may have to look forward to is elections oversight by mob rule—the triumph of name recognition over competence.
Who has better name recognition in King County—Huff, the current director, or Pam Roach, the notorious gun-toting state senator from Auburn? And yet which one of those will more impartially oversee the office—Huff, a longtime administrator with few political connections, or Roach, a partisan Republican with a longstanding, well-documented grudge against the county council?