For a government service that likely doesn’t rate a second thought from most people, the county auditor’s office is still a part of our lives, especially for events that matter most to our government representation and our personal relationships.
Most are familiar with its responsibilities for registering voters, running elections and tallying votes — a duty that’s a basic necessity to instilling confidence in local, state and national government — but the Snohomish County Auditor’s Office also is responsible for recording and filing marriage licenses and other legal documents, including vehicle and vessel licenses and businesses licenses. And it’s responsible for licensing pets and kennels, taking animal complaints and connecting lost and found pets and livestock with their owners.
Now, with heightened concerns about election and ballot security, the election for county auditor has taken added significance, especially as the nation prepares for landmark elections in 2020 for president and Congress as well as statewide and legislative races.
With current Auditor Carolyn Weikel limited to her third and final four-year term, the position is open and has drawn two candidates.
The good news for Snohomish County voters is that both candidates for the nonpartisan auditor’s position — Garth Fell and Cindy Gobel — have years of professional experience directly related to the office’s responsibilities.
Gobel who spent her teen years in Oso and graduated from Arlington High School, has a bachelor’s degree in human services, a master’s in adult education and a law degree from Seattle University. She worked for 11 years in dispatch and records for Western Washington University’s police department, then joined the Snohomish County Auditor’s elections office in 2005, working there 12 years.
Two years ago, Gobel took a job with Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, the statewide election official. Gobel travels the state reviewing county compliance with election rules and checking voting systems and practices.
Fell, currently the elections manager for the county, lives in the Meadowdale area. Fell has 20 years of experience managing elections in King and Snohomish counties, 12 of those for Snohomish County. Fell is certified by the state and federal governments as an elections administrator, and counts oversight of more than 80 elections, including the last five presidential elections. He also served in county-level redistricting work following the 2000 and 2010 census.
Both Fell and Gobel were involved in the roll-out of the state’s new voter registration system, VoteWA, which better integrated county and state registration systems that now allow voter registration up to election day; Fell at the county level and Gobel at the state level.
And, despite some concerns by some county auditors about launching the system’s first real test during the August primary, both said they believed the new system passed its test with few reported problems and shows the commitment at state and local levels to issues of voter security and access.
Both are committed to the office’s nonpartisan ethic and are advocates for outreach to new voters, in particular young voters such as high school students who can pre-register to vote. And each has notable endorsements. Gobel is endorsed by the union representing workers in county offices, including the auditor’s office. Fell is endorsed by Weikel and her predecessor, Bob Terwilliger.
The one main area of disagreement between the two candidates comes down to boxes; specifically ballot drop boxes.
Following the state’s transition beginning in 2005 to all mail-in ballot elections, the state Legislature in 2017 mandated a specific number of drop boxes be placed throughout counties, about one for every 15,000 registered voters and a minimum of one in each city, town and census-designated area with a post office. For Snohomish County’s 360,000 registered voters, that would require about 30 drop boxes; with a recent addition of ballot boxes in Darrington and Gold Bar, the county now has a total of 22.
Gobel told the editorial board she believes the county should provide the mandated number of drop boxes to make every effort to assure accessibility for voters, especially in the county’s more rural areas and its reservations.
Fell, echoing the sentiment of the current auditor, says the requirement, without funding from state lawmakers, leaves counties at a financial disadvantage. Earlier this summer, Snohomish County joined a lawsuit challenging the requirement as a violation of the state’s law on unfunded mandates.
The cost of installing and maintaining the boxes and ballot pickup and delivery can seem insignificant next to other government costs. Fell told The Herald in August that the drop boxes cost the county about $58,000 last year. But, regardless of the amount that’s money that could be better used elsewhere by the office for equally important work.
Gobel’s commitment to voter access is commendable, but Fell’s argument recognizes the county’s budgetary constraints. Snohomish and the other counties should move forward with their legal challenge to emphasize that point with lawmakers And it’s a point that is further strengthened by the fact that each voter’s closest drop box is her or his own mailbox; now a postage-free option.
Although their skill sets feature different accomplishments, either Gobel or Fell would be well prepared to ready the auditor’s office for the 2020 election and for redistricting following the census. But voters should give weight to Fell’s years of direct work as county elections supervisor and his efforts to implement improvements in voting systems and policies, his attention to budgeting concerns and a strong relationship with other officials in the county and its communities.
Fell is best prepared to continue the tradition of service and election security that were upheld by the office’s predecessors.