Robert Sutherland, left, Garth Fell and Cindy Gobel. (Photos provided)

Robert Sutherland, left, Garth Fell and Cindy Gobel. (Photos provided)

Election insiders face election denier for Snohomish County auditor

Republican Robert Sutherland and Democrat Cindy Gobel are challenging incumbent Garth Fell on transparency and community outreach.

EVERETT — Following the 2020 election, state Rep. Robert Sutherland said he didn’t believe it was a fair process and that Democrats had cheated. Now he’s running to oversee elections in Snohomish County.

Sutherland’s entry changed the tenor of a primary race between himself, independent Garth Fell and Democrat Cindy Gobel, who lost to Fell in 2019 by about 4,200 votes.

The candidates represent a wide range of voters who will determine the primary winners for county auditor by Aug. 1. The top two will compete for the nonpartisan position in November’s general election.

Qualifications

The auditor’s office heads four divisions: animal services, elections, licensing and recording. The most prominent division is elections, which oversees voter registration, ballot boxes and ballot processing.

Edmonds resident Garth Fell began his career managing county elections nearly a quarter century ago. He managed Snohomish County elections for 15 years and has served as auditor since 2020. As auditor, Fell navigated COVID-19 challenges and election fraud theories, increased the office’s social media presence and added 12 ballot drop boxes.

Marysville resident Cindy Gobel worked with records, licensing and animal control for 11 years through Western Washington University’s police department. She then worked in state and federal election law compliance — 12 years in Snohomish County alongside Fell and five years in Secretary of State Kim Wyman’s elections division.

Sutherland, a Republican from Granite Falls, is an Air Force veteran and former biochemist who worked on developing cancer therapy drugs in the private sector. As a lawmaker, Sutherland sponsored four bills involving elections, including one that would require people to verify their citizenship to register to vote. After two controversial terms where he spoke out against pandemic mandates and was reprimanded for berating state Capitol security, Sutherland lost his state representative seat in November to a more moderate conservative, Sam Low.

Transparency …

Sutherland said he saw a spike in suspicion among voters after the highly contested 2004 gubernatorial election between Dino Rossi and Christine Gregoire, the closest governor race in U.S. history.

“A significant number of voters have lost confidence in our elections,” he said.

In a court deposition, ballot supervisor Nicole Way said she and Fell, King County assistant elections superintendent at the time, approved a false mail-in ballot report, according to The Los Angeles Times. Both Sutherland and Gobel criticized Fell for failing to accurately report ballots in 2004, just before he was named an elections manager in Snohomish County.

“This county was pissed,” Gobel said. “Why are you bringing him up here? We have a higher level of integrity than that. … I tried to be supportive, too. But it didn’t take longer than a year or two to be like, ‘Oh, I see.’”

Gobel said she became disillusioned by Fell’s leadership.

In response to his opponents bringing up the case, Fell said he was proud of his career and that he was the only candidate with management-level experience for elections.

“I apply my experience each day to ensure the auditor’s office provides accurate, accessible, transparent elections and customer-focused Auditor’s Office services,” he said Wednesday via email. “I am confident voters understand my opponents’ tactics for what they are — attempts to shift the focus off their lack of experience and questionable resumes.”

After the 2020 election, Sutherland held a public hearing in Snohomish that inspired several lawsuits asking the courts to approve an independent forensic audit and release ballot documents. He said making ballots, ballot copies and Cast Vote Records available to the public would be his top priority.

Fell said he has seen a significant increase in election security concerns since 2020, but believes the community trusts the election process overall. He said releasing ballots to the public is a voter privacy issue.

“We’ve been open and provided all records permitted under state law,” Fell said. “These lawsuits are specific to records that aren’t disclosable.”

Fell said people with questions about elections can contact his office, visit the auditor’s website and observe the ballot counting process themselves.

Fell said a remodel of the auditor’s office will be complete in early 2024. There will be a larger open processing floor, observer loop and more security features. Ballot counting will be live-streamed.

… and voter trust

Gobel said her experience with the Secretary of State gives her an insider’s perspective on 2020 election fraud theories.

“I’m laughing, like, I personally certified that,” she said. “It’s pretty locked down.”

Gobel’s concern lies with the information voters receive on their pamphlets. She said there isn’t enough transparency about pro and con statements.

“The auditor’s office doesn’t vet anything,” Gobel said. “It’s up to the voter to do the research, but let’s not make it hard on them.”

In 2022, a Marysville School District levy failed twice. Gobel, who has children in the district, helped form the nonprofit Best Schools Marysville to advocate for the levy. She discovered Fell had appointed a con committee of residents outside the school district.

“You’re appointing a group that has no relevance to that community,” Gobel said. “It appears to be defunding the public school system.”

Fell said he follows state law regarding pro and con committee appointments, and there’s no specific law on rejecting appointments based on jurisdiction.

“The law is clear,” he said. “If someone is interested, my responsibility is to appoint.”

Gobel said if she was auditor, she would only appoint pro and con committees in their relevant districts. She said her transparency about her beliefs should earn voter trust.

Meanwhile, Fell said his dedication to nonpartisanship through his independent status ensures that voters can trust his work in elections.

“I’m free from political pressure,” he said.

Community engagement

Gobel said being out in the community, not just sitting behind a desk, is an important part of the auditor’s job. She has criticized Fell for waiting on legislation to direct his leadership, specifically in ballot language offerings, and waiting for campaign years to prioritize community outreach.

“I don’t have to be told what to do to do the right thing,” she said.

Fell said his office has engaged with the public whenever possible through social media, info sessions and community events like Juneteenth in Lynnwood.

“We’ve done significant work on this,” he said. “It’s a privilege to work on behalf of voters and neighbors.”

Sutherland said he would provide information for Snohomish County residents through a website and printouts.

“My door will always be open to discuss any concerns or potential ways to help improve the system,” he said.

Gobel’s campaign has raised about $23,400, Fell’s campaign has raised about $17,900 and Sutherland’s campaign has raised about $10,000, according to filings with the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Primary ballots will be mailed Thursday and are due Aug. 1.

Sydney Jackson: 425-339-3430; sydney.jackson@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @_sydneyajackson.

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