Oct 19 ballots

Kit Hawver, left, and Cassie Coltrane, right, collect ballots from a drop box with Jim Waters, center, on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Yakima, Wash., Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.

Barring the discovery of a closet full of unaccounted-for votes (no conspiracy theories, please), Yakima County is not going to reach 80% voter turnout this year. It was a strong showing by voters nonetheless.

The anticipated 80% figure was put forward days before the Nov. 3 general election by the county Auditor’s Office, which based the number on strong early ballot returns and an expected surge of ballots on Election Day and just before.

However, the ballot surge was accompanied by a substantial increase in registered voters, said Auditor Charles Ross. There are about 130,000 registered voters in Yakima County this year compared with 114,000 for the 2016 general election in which 81,313 ballots were turned in for a 71% return rate, Ross said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the county elections division had counted almost 95,000 ballots, with about 1,800 to go. Bottom line: The county will see 14,000 or so more ballots than it saw four years ago. It’s not 80%, but it’s a growth of about 3 percentage points. Yakima County traditionally has among the lowest turnout of voters in the state and was the lowest of all 39 counties in 2016. Even with the turnout percentage outlook being downgraded, let’s hope this county doesn’t again earn that dubious distinction.

So, just who and what were Yakima County residents voting for — or against?

It’s no surprise that in our conservative-leaning county, the top-ticket Republicans — President Donald Trump and gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp — easily outpolled their rivals. But it’s interesting to note that Culp (53,011 as of Tuesday, 56.77%) drew substantially more votes than Trump (49,550, 52.75%). Can this mean that voters here have a greater dislike for Culp’s rival, two-term Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, than President-elect Joe Biden? One must consider the possibility based on the governor’s largely unpopular and inconsistent rulings on pandemic-related health and safety restrictions. Only the voters know why they voted the way they did — but it’s worth speculation.

It’s also not a shock that we weren’t big fans of Referendum 90, the statewide measure to affirm or reject the comprehensive sexual health education bill — SB 5395 — approved by the Legislature and signed by Inslee in March. Statewide, the measure was approved easily with almost 58% of the vote and will now take effect. Most Yakima County voters said no, 53.7% to 46.3%.

Locally, the contests for Yakima County Superior Court judgeships offered three intriguing matchups — unusual in that uncontested judicial races are the norm. You have to go back to the 1996 election to find the last race with two challenged seats among the court’s eight departments.

Voters turning away a sitting judge is also uncommon, but it happened in Department 3 as attorney Jeff Swan unseated Judge Doug Federspiel, who was seeking his third term. Federspiel was hindered by a string of personal and professional issues during the past term, including a reprimand for judicial election misconduct for actions during his 2016 campaign. Nonetheless, he kept the race close, drawing 47.53% of the vote.

Judge Elisabeth Tutsch’s contest in Department 2 was not close, however. Tutsch, a former court commissioner who was appointed to the bench in April by Inslee, easily defended her post against Bronson Faul, Selah’s municipal judge and a senior assistant city attorney for the city of Yakima. Faul ran as a law-and-order candidate and posted “No more liberal judges” campaign signs, but drew just 35% of the vote despite the county’s conservative leanings. Tutsch had more rankings of Highly Qualified or Well Qualified than any of the other five Superior Court judge candidates in the Yakima County Bar Association Poll and has a reputation for impartiality and a good understanding of the law.

The nine statewide executive contests produced no great surprises, but we are disappointed that the left-leaning majority of voters turned out state Treasurer Duane Davidson, a Republican from Benton County who has done a good job under difficult circumstances and has initiated several programs that benefit smaller, rural jurisdictions and municipalities.

Davidson’s defeat leaves Secretary of State Kim Wyman as the lone Republican among statewide officeholders. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is officially nonpartisan, although current Superintendent Chris Reykdal, who successfully defended his seat, is a former Democratic legislator and his opponent, Maia Espinoza, ran unsuccessfully for the state House as a Republican in 2018.

Based on the great east-west partisan divide in our state along with basic job descriptions that defy a partisan role, it’s time our legislators considered converting more statewide positions to nonpartisan status. Several candidates raised the idea during the campaign — key among them being Secretary of State Wyman; several others noted that one need only to look at who supports a candidate to judge their political leanings.

Regardless, we support nonpartisan status for the Secretary of State’s Office — a job whose primary responsibility is elections oversight — and believe it’s high time for serious conversations in the Legislature about the partisan status of this office and other statewide executive positions.

Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Bruce Drysdale.