Evan Smith: An election winner with 32%

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Commentary / Evan Smith

Voters in Shoreline, Lake Forest Park and the rest of King County have elected a County assessor with less than 32 percent of the vote.

That’s because former Assessor Scott Noble (pictured, right) resigned after the filing period for the primary but before the primary election itself.

That meant a special filing period during the week of the August primary, a filing period that brought us five candidates running for the last two years of Noble’s term.

Had Noble resigned after the primary, we would have had no election. The County Council would have filled the position until next year’s election, which would have followed a primary that would have narrowed the field to two candidates. Noble couldn’t do that. He had to resign as soon as he was sentenced in July for drunk driving.

Had he resigned before the June filing period, we would have had a primary before this year’s general election. Noble refused, keeping his government salary as long as possible.

So, we had five candidates dividing the vote, and the best-known candidate, former Port Commissioner Lloyd Hara (pictured, right), winning with slightly less than 32 percent of the vote.

However, with more than 123,000 voters leaving the position blank, only about 25 percent of King County voters actually marked ballots for Hara.

Snohomish County had a similar election to replace a judge who died during the summer. Again, there were five candidates, with the winner getting 39 percent of the vote.

The two special elections raise the question of how to fill vacancies that need to be filled without a primary to narrow the field.

I suggest that in the limited circumstances where we have to vote among three or more candidates without a primary, we experiment with ranked-choice voting, also called instant-runoff voting. Each voted marks his or her first, second and third choice. If no one gets a majority of the first-place votes, officials eliminate the candidate in last place and give his votes to his second-choice candidate. If no one still has a majority, officials eliminate another candidate and give his votes to the remaining candidate rankling highest among each of his voters. They continue this until someone gets a majority.

This special election for assessor probably got lost behind the elections for County executive, Seattle mayor and the two statewide ballot measures.

With 21 percent of voters skipping the assessor’s race, we should ask why we vote for assessor. We no longer elect a county clerk, county coroner, county treasurer or county school superintendent, and, unlike voters in other parts of the country, we don’t elect a county engineer or county recorder. Why do we elect an assessor?

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