All Washington conservation districts would elect supervisors during the same week in March under a proposal due to be presented Thursday to the state conservation commission.
The election week could be publicized statewide, possibly increasing interest from candidates and voters, according to a staff report.
The week of voting would replace a system that allows conservation districts to hold elections anytime they choose in January, February or March. Polls can be open for as few as four hours.
Some conservation districts complain a uniform election schedule would upset their practice of picking supervisors at their annual meeting or plant sale.
“That’s something the commission is going to have to weigh,” said Bill Eller, the conservation commission’s elections officer.
Washington has 45 conservation districts, which are governed by two appointed and three elected supervisors.
All registered voters who live in the conservation district are eligible to cast ballots, but the elections are held outside normal elections. The elections are organized by the districts and publicized by legal notices, websites and word of mouth. Turnouts are often low.
To increase turnout, the League of Women Voters in 2015 recommended standardized voting dates. Nothing came of it. Putting candidates on general election ballots would be a new expense for conservation districts.
In May, the state conservation commission staff put out “talking points” on election reform. One point was that districts are traditionally led by “a specialized panel of influential members of the community who have technical expertise in agricultural land use practices.”
The commission appointed a committee to study how to improve the current system. Considering the merits of putting conservation district candidates on general election ballots was not part of the committee’s mandate, Eller said.
The committee suggested holding elections in March because county election officials are occupied in January and February with a regular election, Eller said. Counties can’t run conservation district elections, but they can assist.
The committee left it up to the commission to pick a week in March.
Ten conservation districts submitted comments to the proposal, and most were critical.
One district said it liked a flexible election schedule because it has a small staff and holding an election in March would conflict with its plant sale.
Another official said she liked to get past the election early in the year so she could move ahead with writing the district’s annual report. One district commented that March was a busy month for its constituents.
The King County Conservation District opposed a March election week for a different reason. It plans to elect supervisors on the statewide election date in February. The district said it chose the date to sync up its election with other elections.
“Moving conservation district elections to March is a step backwards, not forward,” the district said in written comments. “One of the key complaints lobbied against CD elections is the perception that they are ‘off cycle,’ ‘exclusive,’ or ‘secret’ — the election no one ever heard of. ...”
The election committee also proposed eliminating the requirement that a candidate submit a petition signed by at least 25 voters to qualify for the ballot.
The committee did not propose changing the requirement that at least two of the three elected supervisors be a landowner or farm operator.
The state auditor’s office in May named 35 special-purpose districts that couldn’t be audited because of poor record-keeping. No conservation district was listed, but the revelation raised concern about holding small districts accountable.
The state conservation commission will convene 9 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, at the Hotel Murano, 1320 Broadway, in Tacoma.