What shadowy cabal is responsible for these lovely thimbleberry seedlings?
What shadowy cabal is responsible for these lovely thimbleberry seedlings? King Conservation District

Psst. Hey. Hey you. Yeah, you with the nose. You wanna vote in an election?

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Shhh, don’t answer too loudly. What, do you want everyone to know that King County is holding an election right now, with ballots due March 23rd? No no no, hush baby, this has gotta be our little secret.

Whatever you do, my little cabbage, do not breathe a word to anyone that King Conservation District currently has an open seat on its five-member Board of Supervisors. The fact that there are a record eight candidates running this year has got to stay just between us friends.

Oh, and for all that is good and holy, you mustn’t let it slip that whoever wins this election will join a body overseeing programs in 34 towns, covering 2.2 million people, with an annual budget of just over $7 million.

Quiet, now. Don’t vote too loud. You wouldn’t want the neighbors to find out that turnout in KCD’s 2019 election was 0.29 percent, and .49 percent in 2020 — yes, you heard that right, less than half of one percent of eligible voters cast a ballot last year.

Wait, what’s that? You actually want to know who’s running, and how to cast a ballot? Ah, of course, I could tell just by looking at you that you’re a person of class and distinction when it comes to voting.

Okay, my pet, here’s what you need to know about this month’s King Conservation District election: The KCD is a weird county-wide authority that was created a few years after The Dust Bowl (yes, it’s THAT old). The district charges a small property tax across 34 different towns to fund programs that protect the regional environment. Currently, residential properties are charged about $12/year, or less than one hour's worth of minimum wage work.

A 2002 law requires that the elections for this body, and this body only, are held in the first few months of the year. Since it’s too expensive to print up a ballot for just this one weird election, the only way to know that it’s happening at all is by being the kind of person who is super-involved in county-level politics (a nerd), or by reading local “blogs,” short for “web log.” The League of Women Voters has a comprehensive report on how things got so messy.

“It’s like hitting my head against a mountain,” says Commissioner Kirsten Haugen, who’s been trying to put the elections on the main ballot since she was elected in 2019. “I thought it was a no-brainer when I went in, but then it was like, ‘Oh no, there’s so much resistance to change.’”

Some of that resistance has come from other conservation districts in other Washington counties, which aren't as well-funded as ours. Those districts are concerned that being responsible for getting on a normal ballot would drain their budget. (In Oregon, the counties themselves pay for similar elections.)

Haugen also says that she’s heard that other counties are “fearful of, quote-unquote, politicizing conservation districts.” Of course; we wouldn’t want elected government positions to be in any way political.

If you would like to participate in the election, it is shockingly easy. Maybe too easy! You just go to a website, enter your name and birthday, pick your candidate, scrawl a signature, and you’re done.

But wait, doesn’t that make it super easy for someone who knows your birthday and who can approximate your signature with a mouse to steal your vote? Well, yes, but luckily (????) nobody cares about this election.

You can also request a ballot in the mail, if you really believe you’ll remember to fill it out and send it back in.

What does the King Conservation District actually do? The budget goes to a variety of projects, such as planting native flora to restore regional habitats (they helped restore Longfellow Creek in West Seattle, for example). They participate in flower and garden shows to encourage people to plant more eco-friendly gardens (destroy all lawns and golf courses, please). They hold classes for kids, they organize cleanups, they train farmers to grow more sustainably, they inspect forests for fire hazards, they issue grants to community farms, they can come to your house and test your soil quality, and so on and so on.

If you own property in King County, you’re already paying for their services; you might as well sign up for their newsletter so you can find out when there’s an opportunity to take advantage of them.

Who’s running? Eight people who seem genuinely very, very nice. You can read their candidate statements here, and honestly all of them seem like the kind of person you would approve of: One is a leader with The Sierra Club, another worked on water issues at various agencies for decades, another focuses on farming and environmental justice. (Worth pointing out: Only one candidate mentions supporting Black-led organizations in her statement.)

There’s also a lennnnnngthy “meet the candidates” Zoom recording here. If you’re able to stay awake through the whole thing, I’d love to know where you’re getting your amphetamines.

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It would be very nice indeed if this election lined up with any other election, but oh well! Fixing the current situation would require the state legislature to pass a bill, and last time they tried, the Washington State Conservation Commission pushed back, arguing that it’s simply cheaper to hold an election where almost nobody votes. Another county objected that coordinating with other elections would interfere with their annual plant sale, which, okay, priorities.

A bill to reform the elections died in committee last year, and although the King Conservation District passed a resolution pleading for more-publicized elections, legislators didn't even try to run a similar bill this year. (Granted, they've got their hands a bit full with all the pandemic stuff.)

But hey. Look on the bright side. Maybe we don’t want the state legislature to wise up. Just keep your voice down, kid, don’t make any sudden movements that might attract attention. This operation’s strictly hush-hush, see? I’m letting you in on this deal because I can tell you’re real sophisticated-like, and you appreciate a good scam when you see one. An election where the impact of your vote is amplified by shockingly low voter turnout? An opportunity like this doesn’t come along every day. Now go on, cast that ballot, cast it real good. Don’t say I never gave you nothing useful. We’ll find a way for you to thank me later.