Zack Hudgins and Julie Wise, candidates for King County elections director, differ on the quality of job the office has been doing.
No one denies King County elections have seen dark times.
The 2004 Gregoire-Rossi governor’s race that flip-flopped in recounts and wasn’t settled until a judge’s decision seven months after the vote put the spotlight on King County problems, including — but not limited to — hundreds of ballots that had mistakenly gone uncounted.
More than a decade later, the key disagreement between Julie Wise and Zack Hudgins, candidates for King County director of elections in the Nov. 3 race, is over the quality of service the elections office now provides.
Wise is the insider. She has worked for the elections office for 15 years, held nearly every position there and is now deputy director to Sherril Huff, who opted not to seek re-election.
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Wise said the agency has adopted 400 separate reforms in the past decade to make elections smoother and more reliable, and adds, “I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
Outsider Hudgins is a seven-term Democratic state representative from Tukwila. He has worked as a manager for Amazon and on contract at Microsoft. He has worked with pro-democracy groups helping conduct elections in several foreign countries.
Hudgins says Wise has little to boast about, given that King County’s voter turnout continues to decline, dipping to 22 percent in this year’s August primary.
“This office is failing our democracy,” he said. “It has been tone-deaf to the community.”
Wise agrees the August turnout was disappointing, but doesn’t blame the elections staff.
“It kills me to see 22 percent,” she said. “That is personally painful for me. But does King County Elections, the government office, change the turnout meter? … It’s what’s on the ballot that interests people.”
In November 2012, when voters were deciding to re-elect President Obama, legalize marijuana and recognize same-sex marriage, King County voter turnout hit 85 percent. In last year’s general election, it was 55 percent.
Wise said the decrease in voter turnout is part of an unfortunate national trend. She wants to increase voter-education efforts to boost turnout, but says she can’t make people vote.
In 2011, seven years after the Gregoire-Rossi fiasco, the elections office received a clean bill of health from a citizens oversight group appointed by the Metropolitan King County Council.
The review group’s chair said the once-tarnished office had become “an international model for the efficient and accurate administration of elections.”
But Hudgins said King County’s attempts to reconcile its election results far too often mean simply disqualifying ballots, thereby disenfranchising thousands of voters.
Since mail elections started, King County has been disqualifying about 2 percent of the ballots people send in, Hudgins said
In contrast, Pierce County has been rejecting just two thirds of one percent of the ballots it receives, he said.
The top reason for rejecting a ballot is that it is not postmarked by Election Day. Wise said county voter-education campaigns have urged people to vote early, and that more work on that is needed.
Hudgins said other counties are doing a better job of accommodating voters who — for whatever reason — aren’t voting by mail. Pierce County provides 30 permanent ballot boxes while King County, with more than twice as many voters, provides 10.
But Wise said in addition to those 10, King County sends out 13 vans to receive votes for several days leading up to the election.
She acknowledges that increasing drop-box locations hasn’t been a top priority of the elections administration, but said if elected, she’d seek to boost the number of drop boxes to 40.
Wise said she doesn’t regard Pierce County as the elections ideal, adding that in 12 of the past 17 elections, King County had a higher voter turnout.
Many King County voters likely don’t even realize this is an elected post, a move that itself was fallout from past election problems. Before 2009, the elections official was appointed by the county executive.
Hudgins, who said the position merits more attention than it’s receiving, this week circulated a news release accusing Wise of lying about her credentials.
He said it’s misleading for Wise, in the voters guide, to list the University of Washington Evans School and Harvard Kennedy School in her “educational background” because that gives voters the mistaken impression that she graduated from those institutions.
Wise, in response, said she didn’t claim to be a graduate of those schools, but that she attended “leadership trainings” through both. She accused Hudgins of raising the issue to take attention away from his lack of experience running elections.
Wise, 35, lives in the Enumclaw area, not far from where she grew up. She’s been endorsed by Huff, Secretary of State Kim Wyman and previous Secretary of State Sam Reed, and has received endorsements from The Seattle Times and The Stranger.
Hudgins, 46, is a Texas native who moved to Washington in the 1990s to do community-organizing for progressive causes. He has been endorsed by Gov. Jay Inslee, Sen. Patty Murray, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, the King County Labor Council and dozens of Democratic organizations and officeholders.
In the August primary, Wise received 63 percent of the vote, Hudgins got 22 percent and a third candidate, Shoreline small-business owner Christopher Roberts, received 15 percent.
Although those numbers make Hudgins the underdog, he said he’s expecting this general election to draw between 250,000 and 300,000 voters who did not vote in the primary.