Candidates for Snohomish County Auditor (from left) Robert Sutherland, Garth Fell and Cindy Gobel.

Candidates for Snohomish County Auditor (from left) Robert Sutherland, Garth Fell and Cindy Gobel.

Editorial: Fell has proved proficiency at county elections post

Gobel has relevant experience, but Fell, in his first term, has expertly led the auditor’s office.

By The Herald Editorial Board

At several points in our lives residents in Snohomish County rely on the services of the county auditor’s office, responsible for recording and filing marriage licenses and other legal documents, including vehicle and vessel licenses and businesses licenses; for licensing pets and kennels, taking animal complaints and reconnecting lost and found pets and livestock with their owners.

Oh, and for those elections that roll around two or more times a year, with the office responsible for registering voters, sending out and collecting ballots and tallying and reporting votes.

This year’s primary election for the nonpartisan office features a rematch of the 2019 race with one-term incumbent auditor Garth Fell again facing former auditor’s office co-worker Cindy Gobel, but joined by an additional player, former Republican state Rep. Robert Sutherland, of Granite Falls, who lost his seat to fellow Republican Sam Low in last year’s election.

Fell and Gobel both offer extensive past experience in elections management, while Sutherland, following the 2020 presidential election, was one of several local Republicans who cast doubt on that election’s integrity. Sutherland, in reporting Thursday by The Herald’s Sydney Jackson, holds that “a significant number of voters have lost confidence in our elections.”

Sutherland hasn’t helped to instill confidence. Among legislation that Sutherland proposed under the guise of election integrity was a bill that would have tossed all voters off registration rolls and required proof of citizenship to re-register to vote. The bill, thankfully, was never given a hearing.

Fell and Gobel met jointly with the editorial board in June. Sutherland declined to participate in the interview.

Gobel’s work history includes 11 years in law enforcement in dispatch, records and communication in Whatcom County, then 12 years with the county auditor in all four of its divisions, including elections and its implementation of the states VoteWA elections database. She then served five years with the Washington secretary of state’s office in its elections division. She lives in Marysville and has served as chair for the Best Schools Marysville organization, which helped pass the school district’s most recent levy in February.

Fell, an Edmonds resident, has some 24 years of experience managing elections in King and Snohomish counties, 15 in Snohomish County, including heading the elections office under then-Auditor Carolyn Weikel, and implementing the VoteWA database. Fell is certified by the state and a national elections official sorganization as an elections administrator and has assisted in redistricting following the U.S. censuses in 2000, 2010 and 2020. As auditor he oversees 45 employees and has administered 14 elections so far in his first term.

Fell said he has kept the campaign promise he made four years ago to ensure fair, accurate, transparent and accountable elections, and acknowledges the scrutiny that election skeptics and deniers across the country have placed on local and state elections systems.

“I believe that we’ve held up well under that light,” he said, adding later that he believes that most voters do trust the fairness and accuracy of elections, and that those alleging problems are protesting outcomes that they don’t agree with.

Fell said that he has worked to increase the outreach and communication of the office, encouraging voter registration and turnout with addresses to groups and at community gatherings, most recently at Lynnwood’s Juneteenth celebration.

As well, Fell’s office is using newly available space in the county administration building to facilitate ballot processing and counting, work that previously was done offsite at leased space elsewhere in the city. Keeping ballots and the counting machinery more centrally located in the building will aid election security, he said.

Gobel, while not doubting election accuracy, is more concerned about voter confidence, low turnout and voter apathy, attributing that to some not understanding the election process, and pointing to the need for outreach and education.

Gobel, who volunteered with the most recent levy for the Marysville School District, said it took a concerted effort to win passage of the levy after multiple failures with 57 percent approval; yet only 35 percent of the district’s registered voters returned ballots. Turnout for all elections should be reaching 60 percent to 70 percent, Gobel said.

Gobel’s focus as auditor, she said, would be on election integrity, transparency and compliance and community education and inclusion, adding that those require an auditor “who has a passion for community engagement.” Gobel said she will work especially to increase the office’s visibility in the community, its presence on social media and improve community access, including providing ballots and website information in multiple languages.

While generally in agreement on the basics of election management, Gobel and Fell did outline different positions on a few issues.

Among them, Gobel disagrees with how Fell’s office is appointing the duty of writing pro and con statements for the county’s voters pamphlet, specifically allowing nonresidents of a district or even that county to write those statements. Regarding the con statement for the Marysville levy, when no one locally stepped up to write it, Fell’s office appointed a Whidbey Island man, a frequent critic of school levies and bonds across the state, to write the con statement and rebuttal to the pro statement.

Fell, pointing to state statute, however, argues that making those appointments when a jurisdiction doesn’t appoint those committees, falls to the auditor’s office. Under guidance from the county’s legal counsel, Fell said, it’s a requirement that, regardless of an author’s city or county of residence, the office “shall whenever possible make the appointments.”

Fell said he would welcome legislation that would require such statements be written by district residents, but until then he must follow the law.

Fell does have a record of working for such changes to state law, including backing legislation this year by state Rep. April Berg, D-Mill Creek, that prohibited the display of firearms near elections and ballot-processing locations. While not successful this year, Fell said he also worked with Berg on legislation that would have added threats made in-person to elections officials and workers to an existing law that covers such threats made by email or text message.

Gobel’s passion for voter outreach and education and her years of relevant experience make her a considerable candidate for the office, but Fell’s on-the-job record, his scrupulous attention to statue and accepted practices, and his own efforts on voter access, election security and accuracy overwhelmingly favor his reelection to a second term.

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