Reporting by Brenda Cunningham
A recent problem with the Mount Vernon mayoral race has raised an important issue regarding how candidates file for office and who verifies their eligibility for that office. The issue is larger than this one election and we should all be informed.
You may have seen the October 16th Skagit Valley Herald article, entitled “Newcomer challenges two-term Mount Vernon mayor.”1 I know some people are scratching their heads about candidate Nuanes’ statement that she did reside outside Mount Vernon city limits for part of last year but believes she satisfies the residency requirement in the state election law.
The state law that has to do with elections in Mount Vernon is RCW 35A.12.030 Eligibility to hold elective office. 2
“No person shall be eligible to hold elective office under the mayor-council plan unless the person is a registered voter of the city at the time of filing his or her declaration of candidacy and has been a resident of the city for a period of at least one year next preceding his or her election. Residence and voting within the limits of any territory which has been included in, annexed to, or consolidated with such city is construed to have been residence within the city. A mayor or councilmember shall hold within the city government no other public office or employment except as permitted under the provisions of chapter 42.23 RCW.”RCW 35A.12.030
The law seems straightforward. A question I have is who enforces this state law and how? Here is a press release 3 from the County Auditor (they handle elections here) that says they confirm the first requirement – that the person is a registered voter but candidates complete a Washington State Declaration of Candidacy form, which states, “You are responsible for ensuring that you meet all qualifications of the office.” According to the Auditor’s press release “While the County Auditor is responsible for supervising and maintaining the integrity of the local elections process, the Auditor does not have authority to determine whether or not candidates are legally eligible to run for public office.”
The Secretary of State does not verify or enforce the residency requirement either. Nor does it offer advice about it to candidates. No local or state agency confirms the residency requirement has been met. Instead a “formal challenge” to the election has to be made in court. If this results in disqualifying the winner of an election it forces the city to hold a second, special election, presumably with qualifying candidates. The cost of the extra election would be borne by the city taxpayers.
I had been naive in thinking that the County Auditor’s Election Division or the Secretary of State would prevent a person from running for office if they do not meet both the state law’s candidacy requirements. Now I know the county and state depend on the oath the candidate takes when filing their application. We all want our votes to count, but no one is protecting the voters from electing someone who could be disqualified, except the candidates themselves when they take that oath.
We have professionals managing elections, yet it is up to a voting citizen to file a formal challenge to safeguard the validity and integrity of the ballot. I believe that 2 options exist for improving this system. One option is to change the state law to place the burden on election agencies to verify that a candidate has met a residency requirement.
The other option is to add this to the list of procedures that can be improved through a charter form of government. A charter could give the Auditor the duty and authority to require proof of residency at the time of filing. This would shift the burden from the citizens to the candidates.
Are either of these changes worth exploring? The cost of maintaining the status quo should include the expense to taxpayers of special elections, as well as the cost to the voter confidence and perceived integrity of our ballots.
Brenda Cunningham, a Mount Vernon resident for the past 27 years, is a retired biologist, and manages a native plant display garden in Skagit for the Washington Native Plant Society.
- “Disqualification: What if a Candidate Doesn’t Meet the Required Qualifications for Office?” Municipal Research and Services Center. http://mrsc.org/Home/Stay-Informed/MRSC-Insight/May/Qualifications-for-Office-and-Disqualification.aspx
- Washington Supreme Court review of residency requirement for mayor of Wenatchee, 1999. https://caselaw.findlaw.com/wa-supreme-court/1434602.html