Garth Fell, left, and Cindy Gobel

Garth Fell, left, and Cindy Gobel

Election insiders face rematch for Snohomish County auditor

Incumbent Garth Fell is proud of his term. His colleague Cindy Gobel thinks she can do a better job — and she’s outspoken about it.

EVERETT — Four years ago, Cindy Gobel lost the race for Snohomish County auditor to her colleague Garth Fell by about 4,200 votes. Now they’re in a rematch.

The two are facing off in November’s general election after ousting election denier Robert Sutherland in the primary. Fell led the August primary with 40.2% of the vote. Gobel followed at 32.8%.

Following the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath, candidates for the auditor role, which oversees elections, have made election security and education their main focus.

Whoever wins the four-year nonpartisan position will make just over $150,000 a year.

Fell is a registered independent voter who doesn’t broadcast personal partisan views, while Gobel is an outspoken Democrat.

“I think voters want to see an independent auditor,” Fell said.

Gobel said voters can trust her political transparency. She accepts election outcomes regardless of her views, she said.

“I just want people to vote,” she said.

Gobel’s campaign had raised over $76,600, compared to Fell’s nearly $31,900, as of Friday, according to campaign filings.

Qualifications

The auditor’s office heads four divisions: animal services, licensing, county records and, most prominently, elections. The elections division oversees voter registration, ballot boxes and ballot processing.

Fell, of Edmonds, took over in 2020 at the height of the pandemic and election fraud conspiracies. He managed elections the previous 20 years, mostly in Snohomish County.

Fell serves as secretary for the state’s county auditors association. During his term, he was also appointed to the leadership council of the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission and the state Recording Standards Commission.

Fell’s office began several efforts on his watch: a multi-year project to create digital copies of land records from before 1976; a recording notification tool so people can detect fraudulent documents filed on their property; and a partnership with the sheriff’s office to hire and train animal service officers.

If Fell is re-elected, 2024 will mark the sixth presidential election he’s overseen at a county level. The office processes up to 250,000 ballots in off-year general elections. Presidential elections bring in double.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “This is where my experience pays off.”

Gobel, of Marysville, worked 12 years in Snohomish County elections alongside Fell. She then worked five years in then-Secretary of State Kim Wyman’s elections division, where she enforced federal and state election laws.

Gobel has expressed concerns with Fell’s leadership, starting with his approval of a false King County mail-in ballot report in 2004, a move that landed him in court.

King County election officials praised Fell for improving election practices following the incident. Fell is proud of his career, he said, and Gobel’s critique is an attempt to shift the focus off her “lack of experience and questionable resume.”

Before the election in 2019, the county auditor at the time, Carolyn Weikel, challenged Gobel’s resume and said she had the wrong “temperament” for the role.

“Her campaign literature and her references to experience in all four divisions of the auditor’s office is flatly not true,” Weikel said at the time.

Earlier this month, Gobel said she is “over 110% qualified,” and the challenge was a personal attack following a labor greivence she filed against the office.

Turnout

The United States lags behind many countries in voter participation.

Turnout for last year’s general election was 63.3% in the county, reflecting national averages. Primary elections can see half that amount — 27% of county voters turned in their ballots for the August election.

Gobel said turnout is “appalling.” It should be easier for people to register to vote, update their information and turn in their ballot, she said.

Informational inserts could be included in paperwork when people buy animal tags or register their kids at a new school, she said, and the office could put ballot boxes on high school campuses.

Fell added 12 ballot drop boxes during his term. The office also secured federal dollars to replace older boxes in underserved communities, he said.

“We’re currently meeting the legal requirement,” he said. “But our goal is to provide a service that encourages people to participate.”

The auditor’s office has been grappling with a growing need for ballots in Spanish and other languages. Fell cited cost as a setback, and said he has been working with legislators to fund election resources in other languages.

But he also said the office has adequate funding.

“I have no concerns personally about our our local funding levels,” he said.

Gobel said the office should be providing resources in more languages regardless of law requirements, and can start with online translations.

The auditor’s office collects data on how many ballots each box receives, and compares box locations with Census data to determine travel times for voters. Fell is working to establish boxes that aren’t too far from voters and have drive-up and walk-up options, he said.

Gobel said that’s not enough.

“A number of the new ballot boxes are not ADA accessible,” she said.

Gobel said she’d complete “a review” of the ballot boxes once in office to determine how many boxes are not accessible and where.

Ballot boxes should be more visible and convenient, Gobel said, and if they are drive-up, the box should be on the driver’s side. She suggested more pop-up boxes. Typical boxes can cost up to $10,000 to install.

Public education and outreach

Gobel is big on public engagement, and said she enjoys door-knocking, phone banking and attending events.

“People need to see that their opinions are valued and they’re heard,” she said.

Gobel has many ideas to further improve public engagement. Among them: community forums, educational videos and high school classroom visits.

“Go to their clubs and encourage them to do voter registration drives,” she said. “Provide election information for the morning announcements.”

This is what Gobel did after voters rejected two school levies last year, leading to layoffs and program cuts in the Marysville School District. Gobel helped found Best Schools Marysville and lead efforts to reach the public. The next school levy on the ballot passed.

“We changed the structure of engagement and got a higher turnout,” she said. “They felt connected to the process.”

The auditor’s office has improved its engagement through social media and public events, Fell said. He also hired a communications manager and outreach coordinator.

Last August, the office received a national award for its partnership with the League of Women Voters. Fell said he plans to work with the secretary of state and other elections offices to create uniform messaging on election security to combat misinformation.

“We’ll use state and federal money for outreach and education campaigns as well,” he said.

Fell secured money for a remodel of the auditor’s office, including a larger space for ballot processing, a loop around the space for public observation and increased security. It’s on track for completion in early 2024, in time for the presidential election.

Once the renovation is complete, ballot counting will be live-streamed so people can feel more secure about election results, Fell said.

“We’re proud of the work we’ve done,” he said.

Ballots were mailed Thursday and are due Nov. 7. A complete list of ballot drop boxes can be found on the county website.

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

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