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Originally published Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 4:11 PM

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Guest columnist

Vote for King County Conservation District supervisor, if you can figure out how

The King County Conservation District is a little-known but important agency with a $6 million budget making important decisions about conservations measures. Guest columnist Bill Sherman argues for changes to increase public participation in its elections.

Special to The Times

Information

To find out where to vote in the King County Conservation District election, go to: http://www.kingcd.org/new_ele_2010.htm

DID you know that just last year, a mere 2,731 people — about one-quarter of 1 percent of voters in King County — decided the future of an agency with a $6 million budget? How is this possible? An accident, of course. A little-known public office — with an even lesser-known system for getting elected to it — controls millions of taxpayer dollars. It's time more people had a say.

The history of access to voting in America has been a march of progress. Today, if you are registered to vote, you get a ballot in the mail three weeks before Election Day, and the only obstacles to casting it are the time it takes to fill it out and 44 cents to send it in.

But for one office in Washington, democracy is mired in the distant past. On March 16, an election for countywide office will be held, but hardly anybody will notice. It will receive scant coverage in this paper or on the Web, and none on the TV news. There will be no absentee ballots, and the actual polling places won't be listed on the King County Elections Web site.

But the winner will help control a public agency with millions of dollars and the power to help shape land use and conservation in the 13th-most-populous county in the nation.

Welcome to the campaign for King Conservation District Supervisor. The Conservation District is an agency authorized by law in 1939 to support land and water use and conservation. It is funded by your property taxes and governed by both appointed and elected members.

And it has been a serious friction point between conservationists and property-rights extremists. Recent elections have seen major efforts by the Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights and Washington Conservation Voters to deliver voters to the polls, to little avail. The result? In 1989, only 18 people voted countywide. In 1994, the winner received all of 79 votes. Last year's 2,731 votes (out of a possible 1 million) was an all-time high.

In this day and age, is this any way to run a democracy? By accident of law, these elections are exempt from the regular elections code. This means there is no public agency with statewide rules that oversees the elections, and none of the legal safeguards that have developed around canvass boards, ballot inspection and signature verification.

Access to the ballot is a joke; even if you wanted to vote, the King Conservation District election will be held at only seven (down from 12) polling places in the entire county. Last year, precisely one was located in the entire city of Seattle, home to 368,494 voters — and that one polling place was hidden in an out-of-the-way alcove behind the escalators in the downtown Seattle Public Library.

With no absentee voting, if you were a homebound senior or out of town that day, you were out of luck. And if you hadn't been told by one of the environmental or property-rights groups, you probably went about your day without ever knowing.

Don't blame the Conservation District; it is just following state law. Real democracy is expensive, and the King County elections office charges each governmental entity a per-voter fee to run an election. And because the Conservation District is not considered part of county government under state law, it has to bear the full cost of the election itself.

Yes, real democracy is expensive. But it's worth it. The Legislature should fix this archaic system to ensure fair access to the ballot — and to guarantee that we have a county Conservation District that will truly represent all the people.

Bill Sherman is an attorney at Sherman & Leary, PLLC, and a board member of the King County chapter of Washington Conservation Voters.

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