John Marshall is a former small business owner and was a Con Committee member for the Prop 5 tax levy.
Whatcom County’s November 8th election was certified on November 29th, despite opposition. The Proposition 5 “Yes for Whatcom Kids!” campaign submitted a last-minute surge of votes that came in following a ballot ‘curing’ process. This is a tax levy that will collect at least $82 million from county residents over the next 10 years.
So, what is ballot curing? ‘Curing’ is a process to find registered voters whose ballots were rejected due to an error such as: lack of a valid signature, lack of a date, or unverifiable signature on the ballot envelope. Once these voters are found, the cause for the rejection can be explained and repaired (cured) and the ‘cured’ ballots can be re-submitted to the auditor for acceptance and tallying.
The “Yes for Whatcom Kids,” used this process to canvas the county and match voters to rejected ballots, then questioned the “rejected” voters about Prop 5. If the voter indicated they had voted Yes on Prop 5, the voter was informed their ballot had been rejected and offered the opportunity to have their ballot accepted and counted. One can assume that only pro- Prop 5 voters would be informed about their rejected ballot and the ability to ‘cure’ them and that No voters were not treated to the same opportunity.
When a “Yes for Prop 5,” campaign member was asked if they used any of their $221,104.32 in campaign contributions to pay for teams of vote- curers, I received no response. If campaign funds were used, that must be reported to the PDC report, so I will be reviewing their report for signs of a ‘paid’ curing effort.
For historical value, the “Yes on Prop 5” tax levy did not obtain enough signatures to place it on the ballot. Then, the Whatcom County Council intervened using the indirect initiative process and placed it on the 2022 General Election ballot. Initially, as timely ballots were verified and counted, the ‘No’ on Prop 5 had 2,284 more votes than‘Yes’ on Prop 5.
But, Prop 5 did pass with twenty-votes. At the Canvassing Board’s certification meeting, Whatcom County Auditor Diane Bradrick commented that the number of late, ‘cured ballots,’ was unprecedented and the reason the ballot measure passed. There was no vote-curing effort by the ‘No on Prop 5,’ and no local-media covered how this comeback was achieved through vote curing.
Whatcom County has a Canvassing Board whose function is to supervise the election process and protect our votes. They also certify our elections. Whatcom’s Canvassing Board is comprised of: Whatcom County Auditor Diane Bradrick, a representative from the Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, Royce Buckingham, and Whatcom County Council member, Todd Donovan.
Even though many citizens emailed the Canvassing Board about how the vote curing process affects election integrity, Royce Buckingham announced on November 28, that citizen’s emails would not be reviewed or replied to until after the election certification on November 29.
How can we be confident that this flip in votes represents the actual will of the people? Many of Prop 5’s biggest contributors stand to benefit financially from it. A few thousand dollars contributed up-front would reap much larger financial benefits over the 10-years these additional tax dollars are collected and redistributed through grants and subsidized childcare for their services.
The ability of an invested party to ‘cure’ ballots appears to have determined the outcome of this property tax measure. With voter apathy on the rise, when local campaigns use questionably ethical workarounds, like vote curing, it fuels that apathy. We need to shore-up our election process, not tear it down.
How can we repair the faulty aspects of our voting system and restore voter confidence? One idea is to make the status of each ballot confidential for all but the voter; this would eliminate the ability to ‘cure’ ballots. Another is to restore single day elections, rather than a five-week, prolonged process, with rejected signatures and questionable late ballots.
Voting is a hard-won constitutional right. We must not take it lightly.
Comments by Readers
Ellen Baker-GlacierDec 05, 2022
Just a day before the “final count,” Prop 5 was 93 votes behind with 11 ballots yet to count. The next day, Prop 5 miraculously “won” by 20 votes. On the strength of this “majority,” we’ll all be paying far more property tax for the next ten years for [ostensibly] “public work” that has no scope (a “committee” will come up with a report in two years or thereabouts (?)).
The optics - dubious, to put it mildly. But what do I know?
Todd LagesteeDec 06, 2022
Ensuring someone’s vote counts is always a worthwhile endeavor. I helped cure some ballots for Prop 5 and I certainly didn’t ask how people voted. I expected that the people on the list I had were more likely to vote for the Children’s Levy, but that is publicly available information.
Washington’s primary voting system, allows for which primary (Republican or Democrat) a voter casts their vote in and inferences are made from there. I didn’t ask, nor was I advised to ask, how a ballot to cure was voted before helping to ensure a person’s ballot got counted.
Anyone from the “Con” side of Prop 5 could have volunteered their time, like I and so many others did, getting votes to count. They could have used the same publicly available data to try to help voters data suggest would be on their side. I am not sure why it is ethically questionable to ensure that people get their vote to count? We do get out the vote to remind people to vote and each side typically focuses on their voters.
The author suggests that voter apathy is on the rise, but then suggests that voting status should be private. Will people really check the status of their vote? The two points seem incongruous. Further, I never met anyone that was upset that I was there, at their door, to help them get their vote to count.
Six years ago, the EMS Levy used ballot curing to swing the election to passing a levy that built up a massive $20+ million surplus in under 5 years. Yet voters, this time, turned out in droves to say, yes take our money and more.
I spent some time on a nuclear submarine, pushing missles around the ocean, defending our right to vote. I want more people to vote, not less. I want avenues that ensure everybody’s voice gets heard. I am glad that we have vote by mail. It served me well, when I was deployed and underwater. Frankly, I would love to see a County-wide, non-partisan voter assistance process. However, until that day, each side had equal access to the data; that’s called a level playing field. One side just wanted it more; that’s called winning!
Steve M. JamesDec 06, 2022
Really—-single day elections again. Why stop there ? Let’s go all the way back to the past and have single day election excluding all those pesky women from voting and oh yeah, non- property owners and people of color.
Washington State and Whatcom County has done an excellent job in making the franchise available to as many eligible voters as possible. Any efforts to restrict that access to some sort of 18th century system is absolutely insane.
More Whatcom County voters wanted the levy to pass than did not and expressed the wishes with their vote. Now the minority, those who did not support the measure want to modify the Initiatives funding to meet their wishes not the majority. Our Charter does not allow that.
If the measure had failed by a few votes would there be the same hew and cry over ballot count or ballot curing? I doubt it. Sounds to me that some folks are following the example set by the loser of the last Presidential election and cry foul only when they lose.
I for one have no problem paying a little more in taxes to help those in our society in need.
Pearl FollettDec 06, 2022
This vote should be challenged. Were the callers all for prop 5.What did they say to the person they tlaked to? I think that undue influence may have been used. this needs to go to court.
I would like to know who will get the salleries from this tax. While children need help it should not come by taxing the elderly and poor out of their homes.There are other ways to tax .
Please caring people think of the harm this tax will do to those who can not pay it.
Bill McCallumDec 06, 2022
Since the difference between yes and no on Prop. 5 was less than 0.5 percent why wasn’t there a recount?
John ServaisDec 06, 2022
Easy fellah. As a liberal or D you are going to the extremes of marginalizing the writer in the same way that Ds and liberals accuse the right of doing. The writer presents a factual narrative in this article. That is 99% of the article. At the end he suggests his ideas for improving our system. If you have better suggestions, then this is the venue for presenting them. I too disagree with John’s two suggestions and will write of my own ideas. Your statement saying the county has done an “excellent” job is both an implicit suggestion that no improvements are needed and also is a statement that I disagree with. For one, the ballot drop boxes locations could be improved. The NW part of Bellingham very much needs a ballot drop box - and one should be placed near Northwest Avenue and Birchwood. And there are other improvements to make. Our system is not at terminal stage where we can reflect in the perfection of it.
Abe JacobsonDec 07, 2022
At present, our federal and state consitutions, as well as our county charter, dictate that elections, unless explicity stated otherwise in advance of ballots’ being cast, are simple-majoritarian. I personally wonder if a parliamentary democratic organization might be better than what we have, for it forces the formation of working collaborations to get things done, and seems to avoid the hairtrigger decision of “who wins” that is inherent in our majoritarian system.
But this is what we have. Only amending constitutions or charters (from federal down to municipal) can change that. The tiny delta of 20 votes for Prop 5 (out of 111,791) is percentage-wise stronger, for example, than the percentage by which George W. Bush was given Florida in 2000, or Al Franken’s win for Senate from Minnesota. Check out EMS’s tiny margin in 2016, and Doug Erickson’s tiny margin in 2018. So: do we jettison results that prevail by less than some specified percentage? What percentage would you like us to use? And what is to prevent “curing” to get on the desired side of that margin?
And speaking of curing, the article assumes that curing occurred on only one side. Has he checked on the robust effort in support of the Republican candidate for State Senate in the 42nd LD? Would anyone wonder which way those cured ballots affected the Prop 5 tally?
We could have some very useful conversations on such issues, but those conversations need to look evenhandedly at how power decisions are arrived at, not just focus on one partisan side.
Ellen Baker-GlacierDec 19, 2022
Let me be a little more clear about my concerns about how this particular item played out. I fully appreciate and fully support the concept that “every vote” should “count.” I have no problem with efforts to “cure” ballots that have minor defects - perhaps some person has inadvertently written a date in a sloppy way (who among us hasn’t, on occasion, slipped and written the wrong year on a form?).
In this case - first, let’s talk “margin.” I continue to think it’s troubling that a significant tax increase (19 points IS serious money to those of us on fixed incomes) could pass OR fail for want of a single vote. Whatever readers here might think of Elenbaas, I think he was right to propose a higher threshhold for a ten-year levy (the term used in the council minutes was “super-majority”).
Maybe this sounds naieve, but over time I’ve become thoroughly disgusted by “I win, you lose sucker, stuff it!!” political tactics. Understand, I don’t care WHAT party plays that brand of hardball (both major parties are caught up in the same bloodsport). One vote (up or down) on a matter that will impact hundreds of thousands of people for years - that simply does not feel right, or sit right. Without navel gazing as-to why some people skip filling in (don’t bother to fill in the bubble) here or there, twenty votes of 111,630 ballots a “win” so miniscule (.0001791633) I see absoutely no reason to think the ‘public will’ was expressed. I realize that proponents are spinning this “win” as “a majority,” but that kind of margin is downright ludicrous. Yes indeed, there have been other razor-thin wins (and losses), but - again (cranky old woman here) “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Another thing - from the get-go it was obvious that significant special interest money was poured into promoting this proposition. The theory is that good ideas (really solid ‘public benefit’ offerings worthy of taking bread from everyone’s plate) should be so strong and well reasoned that they sell themselves. This - well, this required big donations, hired-gun spin doctoring, and cliche “Yes for kids” signs to squeak through. I’m weary of cheap sells and “politics as a bloodsport.”
Special interests promoted this like crazy. That should always raise a red flag. What’s worse, this particular bobber in the punchbowl guaranteed absolutely nothing, zero, zip in the way of results. They take our money, we get what again? Who honestly thinks that ten years of this tax will assure that all kids will be “ready for kindergarten”? Who honestly thinks the (yet undeveloped program) will resultin less homelessness? There will be less crime and incarceration? Elucidate. However well intentioned, the probability of any of those promises being met even marginally struck me as “unfathomable” - and clearly (except for twenty persons) half the public was similarly skeptical. It’s also true that a very great number of us will be tangibly impacted by the tax-cap raise
Again - I didn’t (and don’t) question that every vote “should count” and I didn’t carp about correcting minor ballot errors. Shuffling budgets - let that go to “simple majority” but there was no “rule” preventing this requiring a bigger margin to assure tangible public support (consent of the governed, as it were). As long as I’m repeating myself, let me say again - where it comes to razor thin majorities, “two wrongs don’t make a right” - right?
Robert BystromDec 20, 2022
Up until a couple of years ago, I naively thought the vote counting system in Whatcom County was as simple as it could possibly be: at the end of election day, confirm the signatures and count the paper ballots, period. What could be simpler?
Wow! Was I ever in the dark about olther places ballots could come from, about changing the time stamp, about tweaking the vote counting machinery, about more ballots collected than were sent out, about non-residents receiving ballots and on and on. And then there is the privte, back room validation process which by law in our county is conducted by the majority party.
I like the system of showing up in person on election day and having my signature verified on the spot and the process being overseen by bipartisan neighbors.
Thank you John Marshall for bringing this egregiously flawed system to everyone’s attention.