Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell inspects the testing of ballot-counting equipment prior to the March 10 presidential primary. (Rachel Riley / Herald file photo)

Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell inspects the testing of ballot-counting equipment prior to the March 10 presidential primary. (Rachel Riley / Herald file photo)

Editorial: Pandemic forces some changes for 2020 election

What the coronavirus hasn’t changed is the need for good candidates and for informed voters.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Like nearly everything else in our lives, the coronavirus pandemic has forced changes for our elections, if not in how we vote in this state, at least in how candidates will file for public office; from precinct committee officers on up to Congress.

Washington state has had the good fortune to have a vote-by-mail system in place years before the pandemic forced other states into their current scramble to prepare for this year’s elections. As well, Washington state has offered political candidates the option of online registration for several years. But this year — aside from a mail-in option for some state and national races — online is the only option. No walk-ups.

With the Snohomish County campus closed to limit the spread of the virus, said County Auditor Garth Fell, those planning to file for the Aug. 4 primary and Nov. 3 general election will need to do so online. Online filing will open at 9 a.m. Monday, May 5, and close at 4 p.m. Friday, May 11.

“These are interesting times for sure,” Fell said earlier this week by phone. “But we’ve been encouraging people to rise to the occasion to make this work, offer a professional service and keep people safe at the same time.”

Snohomish County’s election office has offered online filing for seven or eight years, Fell said, and even when some came to the office to file in person, the information was still entered into the same online system, which, with the VoteWA upgrades made last year, now connects all county election systems with the state’s election database.

Snohomish County voters this year will decide races beyond that for U.S. president, including all legislative House races; a few state Senate races; governor and other statewide offices; superior, appellate and state Supreme Court seats; a county council seat; congressional House races; and precinct committee officers.

Candidates will be able to file online through the VoteWA system. Candidates will need their name as recorded in their voter registration, date of birth, campaign email address and phone number and a credit or debit card to pay the filing fee; precinct officers are not charged a fee. More information on filing for office is available at snohomishcountywa.gov/228/Candidate-Filing.

The switch to online filing for offices could end one quirk of past election seasons, Fell said. Some potential candidates often arrived at the elections office for the final minutes of the filing period to see who had filed for which positions or if any positions were without candidates before signing up or even switching which office they filed for. While the list of who has filed will be updated daily, only some statewide offices will be updated in real time, he said, limiting the opportunity for some to jockey for position.

Along with preparing for the filing period, Fell said his office has been kept busy with other preparations for the coming elections, while adhering to social-distancing precautions. Of the office’s current 45 employees, only about 10 can work in the county campus office at any one time, processing mail and answering phone and email inquiries, leaving the rest to work from home.

Some decisions made earlier are proving well-timed. In preparing for ballot processing and counting for the primary and general election, the county has leased about 20,000 square feet of space in south Everett, which will now allow the elections office to provide more space among election workers for their protection.

Fell and his staff also are making plans to leave open the ability of people to register to vote on the day of the elections, including a “restaurant-like” phone reservation system. Online voter registration is available up to eight days before the election. But Fell is hoping to encourage as many potential voters as possible to register now and avoid any hassles later.

The needs for social distancing also will change how The Herald Editorial Board approaches its interviews of candidates and endorsements for office.

Those interviews and the endorsements will continue for as many races as possible, with some changes. Candidates can expect the editorial board to request their participation in interviews by video teleconference, which we hope to record and share online with readers.

While the pandemic has forced changes throughout our daily lives, it also has provided clarity about the role of elected public office and of elections.

“The virus has shown that leadership is important,” Fell said. “The role that elections play in our lives; this is our opportunity to manage this well for candidates and voters.”

Those running for office — at all levels — will be taking on responsibilities that have been made more daunting and consequential by the pandemic. For starters, there will be difficult and contentious decisions to make regarding budgets, services and taxes.

Serious, experienced candidates need to step up to run for office. And serious, informed voters will be needed to elect those leaders.

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