August 4th is this year’s primary election date. In addition to the high-profile races for the U.S. Congress and statewide races for positions such as Governor, Secretary of State, and Lands Commissioner, we also have local County Commissioner races on the primary ballot. It is important to note that the elections for County Commissioners are a bit different than other races.
The State Constitution makes the three-member commission form of government the standard form of government unless a county adopts a home rule charter. Thurston County, like most counties in Washington, is one of the 32 “non-charter” counties.
Non-charter counties are divided into three commissioner districts and each district contains approximately one-third of the population based on the census. All Thurston County voters reside in one of three districts and county commission candidates must live in the district they seek to represent. Now here is where the primary election gets tricky.
By law, county commission candidates must first be nominated by their district. This nomination occurs in the primary election when the top two vote-getters in the primary election advance or are nominated to the general election. This nomination is conferred only by the voters within the district the candidate seeks to represent.
Because terms are staggered, this year voters in commissioner districts 1 and 2 have a commissioner race on their primary ballot. In addition, only voters living in district 1 will have district 1 candidates on their ballot and only voters living in district 2 will have district 2 candidates on their ballot. So far so good: voters in each district vote for their local representative to the County Commission.
Now it gets interesting… in the general election, all the voters in the county will vote on all the County Commission races. Even voters in district 3 will vote for commissioners representing districts 1 and 2. This is different than most representative or district offices. For example, voters in any given legislative district will vote for their 2 representatives, out of a total of 98 representatives to the State House of Representatives. The voters will never vote for all 98 State Representatives from across the state.
So you see… county commissioners are: 1) nominated by voters in their district and then; 2) elected by voters in the full county. In many ways, this reflects the commissions’ dual role as: 1) the legislative body and thereby representing the district; and 2) the executive body and thereby representing the whole county. This odd duality is also present in how we currently elect Commissioners to the Port of Olympia and the Thurston County Public Utilities District. Weird, huh?
But this will all change when Thurston County reached 400,000 people. State laws were amended (SHB 2887 for you policy geeks) so that beginning in 2022, any non-charter county with a population of 400,000 or more, must increase the number of commissioners to five. In addition, the county shall have both district nominations and district elections. Someday Thurston County will reach a population of 400,000 and then we will no longer have countywide elections for commissioners. This assumes we don’t adopt a home rule charter – but that is a topic for another issue of the VOICE.
All this is to underscore how important the primary election is for our community. The outcome of the primary election for county commission races determines who is on the ballot for the entire county to elect. Further, this year two of three County Commissioner positions are open meaning that the voters can significantly alter who is leading the single largest political jurisdiction in the County, as measured by population, budget, and authority, in the county.
Traditionally, the primary election has lower voter turnout compared to the general election. This is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss, and we must improve turnout in the primary. And to be honest we need to improve turnout in general elections as well. Public policy is made by those that participate. Voting is the easiest way to participate in our system of democracy and governing. Vote!