News

Outside help recommended for elections 'turnaround'

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

An independent committee looking into the election controversy in King County has recommended an external organization be hired to lead a “turnaround.”

County Executive Ron Sims said he supports the idea from the King County Independent Task Force on Elections.

Following the disputed Washington governor’s election that revealed missing ballots being found and ballots mistakenly left uncounted, three groups are investigating the county’s election department. The County Council has formed an investigation group, Sims called togther the task force that issued its report last week, and the election department also formed a body to look into what went wrong and how to change.

All the groups are working to find the problems and recommend solutions to bring back the public‘s trust.

The task force also recommended the director of elections become a non-partisan elected position rather than appointed by the county executive. The task force specifically suggested in its report this change be “long-term.”

While not openly approving the idea, Sims did acknowledge it.

“I agree with the task force that the issue of an elected auditor is a longer-term issue that deserves vigorous public discussion,” he said.

Republicans have been calling for the position to be elected, and three council members –– Jane Hauge, David Irons and Reagan Dunn –– applauded the task force’s recommendation. Dunn had earlier sent a letter to the elections director asking him to resign.

Dean Logan, the election department’s director, didn’t address any specific aspect of the task force’s report last week, but noted the efforts of the three groups.

“All of these recommendations and findings represent thoughtful, conscientious initiatives to improve elections and to restore confidence - and all of them should be carefully considered as we move forward with existing efforts to improve and refine our elections process in King County,” Logan said.

As part of the outside group’s objectives, the task force recommended it create a new culture in the elections department noting, Logan “faced an entrenched organizational culture that did not effectively ensure compliance with election law and policies”.

Election department employees weren’t the only ones criticized. The task force also noted “ineffective or poor communication between senior managers and elections staff” and “a perception within the elections section that employees who make errors are subject to harsher discipline than managers who make errors, which was reinforced by the recent reassignment of the superintendent of elections”.

Bill Huennekens, the superintendent of elections, was reassigned to another section of the election department following criticism of how King County handled the count and two recounts of the governor’s race. Logan said Huennekens is better in the other area.

While Sims is supporting the creation of the “turnaround team,” it apparently doesn’t mean he has withdrawn his support from Logan. Sims appointed Logan, a former state elections official, in 2003 following a series of incidents where absentee ballots were mailed too late for voters to return them before the deadline and Huennekens’ predecessor falsely claiming to have sent them on time.

Logan was tasked with bringing the election department on track and restoring public trust.

Creating the “turnaround team” will help Logan make the changes necessary to the department, said Sandeep Kaushik, a spokesman for Sims.

“Our sense is this is not mutually exculsive,” Kaushik said.

Sims’ office is sending a letter this week to the council, outlining the outside team and asking the council to endorse the task force’s report, Kaushik said. That includes a legislative agenda to push the state primary to June, giving county elections departments time to count primary ballots and prepare for the general election.

Secretary of State Sam Reed, Washington’s top elections official, has made a similar suggestion for years, but state legislators have been skittish, believing their challengers would have a fund-raising advantage. Incumbents can’t raise money for the campaign trail while the Legislature is in session.

A dollar amount for the outside team has been established and there isn’t a timeline for when this group would start. King County believes it’s trying an angle that hasn’t been done before.

As for making the elections director an elected position, Kaushik said Sims’ office is taking the approach of getting the “turnaround team” in place and solving some of the near-term issues before talking about the future of the job.

“We’re completely willing to have that discussion,” Kaushik said.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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