Opinion

County government needs nonpartisan focus

By JOE FAIN, Citizens for Independent Government

What frustrates you at the ballot box?

Whether in South King County or downtown Seattle, many voters expressed anger when they were forced to sign a partisan oath or

attend a partisan caucus in order for their views to matter in last month’s election.

This should not surprise the political parties or our elected officials. Washington’s political culture is fiercely independent. We are a conscientious and well-informed electorate that takes our democratic responsibilities seriously. We do not like being told who we can or cannot vote for.

King County Elections recently stated that more than one in four votes in the presidential primary were deemed invalid because those voters failed to declare a party. Many found it unconscionable to sign an oath to a particular party, and even more were outraged that this declaration would be made public.

Political parties play an important role in our civic dialogue. They register new voters, help first-time candidates and bring like-minded people together to debate, discuss, organize — and act. However, when political parties are granted the right to limit voter choice and pigeonhole voters with oaths and declarations, their positive influence gives way to mass disenfran-chisement.

After a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2000 called Washington state’s beloved blanket primary into question, the parties moved quickly through the courts to require party selection in our state’s primary process. A 2004 initiative, which allowed voters to select from all candidates in partisan elections, passed by nearly 60 percent, but party leaders again chose to challenge voter choice in court.

Although hope for re-establishing the open primary in court is fading, voter choice can still be restored by making the elected offices nonpartisan.

An effort to do so is now under way in King County. Citizens for Independent Government is gathering signatures to place Initiative 26 before King County voters this August. Initiative 26 will make the offices of King County Executive, King County Council and King County Assessor nonpartisan, giving voters the freedom to select from all candidates for these county charter offices without having to declare a party.

A nonpartisan county government will improve competition in elections. Partisan primaries are often uncontested, limiting the field to one candidate from each party before voters have an opportunity to weigh in. This discourages many qualified candidates who are not firmly rooted in the partisan structure and takes focus off local issues, which are predominately nonpartisan.

King County primarily works with local nonpartisan governments, including city councils and fire, hospital and utility districts. County officials should view basic services through the same nonpartisan lens.

That is why the Suburban Cities Association of King County, made up of elected officials representing 37 of King County’s 39 cities, has supported nonpartisan council elections. Over 25 mayors and city council members from Federal Way to Bothell have also joined countless citizen supporters in endorsing Initiative 26.

Nonpartisan reform is not new to King County. Many of the original freeholders supported nonpartisan offices while drafting the county charter in the late 1960s. It was again recommended during the merger of King County and Metro in the early 1990s, but each attempt was rejected by the parties and the partisan county council. In 1997, the King County Council again refused to place the issue of partisanship before voters, ignoring recommendations from the Municipal League, the League of Women Voters, and its own Charter Review Commission.

In King County’s 39-year history as a home rule charter county, the public has never been allowed to vote on this fundamental issue.

King County voters can finally have that opportunity by signing a petition to place Initiative 26 on the ballot. Together, we will improve local government while sending a message to our local leaders and political parties that elections should be about choice and local government should be about service.

To learn more about nonpartisan elections in King County and how to get involved in supporting Initiative 26’s signature drive, visit www.bettercounty.org or call (866) 920-5464.

Joe Fain is chair of Citizens for Independent Government and has served both Republican and Democratic members of the King County Council and the nonpartisan King County District Court. Contact:

jfain@legislativeaffairs.us.

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