Retiring Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel at the courthouse in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Retiring Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel at the courthouse in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Weikel’s retirement ends an electoral era in Snohomish County

Her tenure featured historic ballot battles and persistent efforts to boost voter participation.

EVERETT — Carolyn Weikel is loaded with stories.

Like the one about Sacagawea dollars.

When she assumed command of the Snohomish County Auditor’s Office in 2007, her mentor and predecessor, Bob Terwilliger, gave her five for use in the rarest of occasions: to break a tie in an election.

When she exited office Tuesday, a result of term limits and retirement after 43 years in public service, she left three Sacagawea dollars for her successor, Garth Fell.

Through the years, two precinct committee officer contests required a coin flip to settle. Each time the winner got the post and the loser got a coin.

Then there was the time she was asked about the possibility someone might rappel from the ceiling of a county building to mess with ballot-counting equipment.

This was 2004. Snohomish County used touchscreen voting machines then. They weren’t connected to the internet. Republicans were fine with them, she recalled. Democrats, however, “were absolutely sure they were rigged because there was no paper ballot to count.”

When it came time to download results in the facility, Weikel said, “I was asked how were we sure that people would not come in through the ceiling and tamper with our voting machines. I told them there is a layer of concrete between the ceiling and the floor above it.”

Her tenure featured historic ballot battles, constantly changing primaries and a revolution to make voting easier.

Weikel, 66, grew up near Boston and graduated from college in Massachusetts with a teaching degree. When she moved to Washington to be closer to siblings in the mid-1970s, the absence of classroom opportunities led her to a job in King County and a career in public service.

The job of county auditor is a bit of an odd gig. There’s no auditing. Overseeing elections is the most-talked-about task, yet the auditor’s office is where thousands go to license their pets or their vehicles or to record documents.

“It gave me the same satisfaction to help individuals to get what they needed,” she said of the job. “As I tell my staff, people come to us because they have to, not because they want to. It’s our job to make them leave feeling like they were heard and they were respected, even if they didn’t like what we were saying.”

She supervised the King County auditor’s licensing division before coming to work in Snohomish County in May 1990. She started in the licensing division and became elections manager in 2003.

She captained the elections ship until getting appointed auditor — the first woman to hold the job in Snohomish County — in January 2007. She ran unopposed for a full four-year term that fall. She won re-election in 2011 and 2015, both times unopposed, as well.

Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel holds up three of fives coins given to her by her predecessor, for use in deciding election ties. The missing coins were given to the losing candidate after the coin toss to decide the winner. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel holds up three of fives coins given to her by her predecessor, for use in deciding election ties. The missing coins were given to the losing candidate after the coin toss to decide the winner. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Managing elections proved a good fit.

Growing up, her parents discussed and participated in politics. Her dad, Patrick Fitzpatrick, was an insurance broker who raised money for Republicans. But because of his name, “people thought he was a Democrat,” Weikel said.

“When I got to elections, it felt very comfortable working with both parties and staying nonpartisan,” she said.

It could have been a smoother start, however.

She assumed command in January 2003 amid a simmering controversy from the election two months earlier. There had been a mess with ballot counting when some machines failed to read voters’ marks because of deteriorating equipment. Republican observers questioned an anomaly of low totals in one race and, upon further review, “a ton of votes” had to be added, Weikel said.

There were more controversies ahead.

Remember Washington’s pick-a-party primary? In 2004, voters got three different colored ballots, one each for the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties. If you did not mark the box for a party, none of the votes counted, which peeved a lot of voters.

A few months later came the historic duel between Democrat Christine Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi for governor. It took three tallies of ballots. Gregoire won the last, which was a statewide hand recount.

In the course of the process, Weikel’s team garnered attention. After the initial tally, a couple of her election workers found a mail tray that was supposed to be empty but had a couple of hundred ballots in it.

“I just remember hearing ‘Carolyn’ and looking over to see them standing there, looking down into this tray. Here was this batch that had never been counted,” she recalled.

In 2005, at Weikel’s direction, the auditor’s office developed the state’s most sophisticated accountability system to enable a ballot envelope to be tracked from the moment it reaches the elections office through tabulation.

The next year the county abandoned polling places and touchscreen voting machines and went entirely to voting by mail.

This past decade, state lawmakers focused on clear impediments to voting. Ballots can be put in a designated drop box or returned by mail, postage-free. And people can now register and cast a ballot on Election Day.

It’s been an awesome run. Yet as Weikel departed, she acknowledged frustration with the difficulty of keeping voters engaged year-round, every year. While turnout is in the neighborhood of 80% for presidential elections, it’s less than half in most odd-year elections and less than a third for many special elections.

“There’s something missing,” she said. “What is lacking is the connection that the water district, the fire district, the city council are all making decisions every day that impacts their lives.”

If schools offered civics lessons on local government, it might help build a stronger foundation for participation, she said. A new law allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister as voters — they’ll automatically get signed up when they are eligible — could provide a boost.

She’s hopeful these changes will lead to a rise in turnout.

If it does, it’ll be a story for the next auditor to tell.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos.

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