Posted by: sweeneyblog | April 17, 2014

Charter Review and District Only Voting

Treasuring the many wonders of our unique environment and realizing that the power and duty to govern and protect this region is inherent in its people, we, the citizens of Whatcom County, in order to have a government which advances justice, inspires confidence, and fosters responsibility, do adopt as the foundation of our government, this Charter.” -Whatcom County Charter, Preamble

This year, Whatcom County voters have a unique opportunity. They will be able to rewrite the constitution of our county government. This process is called a County Charter Review.


Once upon a time in Whatcom County . . .

Once upon a time in Whatcom County . . .

Most counties in Washington state do not have a charter. They use the standard setup outlined by the State Constitution and the legislature, where three county commissioners are elected by the voters, and they appoint a county manager to serve as the executive branch. This setup works just fine in say, Adams County (pop. 19,200), where the most debated subject is resurfacing the main road that runs through the county to handle more truck traffic.

But this setup runs into trouble when it is applied to say, Thurston County (pop. 260,100). Three full-time commissioners simply cannot handle all the duties of a county government when it gets to be that size, so Whatcom County (pop. 205,800) found a different solution.

In 1978, the voters approved a “Home Rule Charter” which means the citizens of Whatcom were seizing the power to reorganize their government, as provided for in the state constitution, making us the third such county to do so in the history of Washington.

Whatcom County Charter

Our County Charter serves as our county constitution. You can read it in its entirety here.  It outlines who is elected (county executive, sheriff, treasurer, auditor, prosecutor, assessor and council) and who is appointed (county clerk, medical examiner, board of health, etc). It defines the powers of each office, lays out the procedure for elections and defines compensation and concepts like conflict of interest.

Charter Review Commission

Whatcom County

Whatcom County

According to our charter, every ten years the citizens will form a commission to, “review the Charter to determine its adequacy and suitability to the needs of the county and may propose amendments.” They will serve without salary and usually attend a series of meetings that spans six months. The commissioners are elected by council district, with the top five vote getters in each district being seated, for a total of fifteen commissioners. All the amendments proposed by the commission must be put to a vote in November 2015.

Why Should I Care?

The Charter Review Commission has the power to drastically change the way we operate as a county. Just to pick one drastic example, they could strip the County Council of its ability to approve land use permits, a major blow for Gateway Pacific Terminal opponents. Alternately, they could turn the county executive into an appointed position and give that power to the County Council, raising the stakes for council races to ridiculous levels.

District Only Voting

However, the most likely battleground this year is over district-only voting. Charlie Crabtree, chair of the Whatcom Republicans and confused newspaper reader, has made it crystal clear that his priority for the Charter Review is district-only voting. As he wrote in his emails to disheartened Republicans after they lost control of the Council last year,

In 2005 Voters in Whatcom County voted to elect their Representatives by the District where they reside instead of an “At-Large” County-wide Election. The first election to be “district only” was 2007. Five weeks after the 2007 election, led by Barbara Brenner, the council passed an ordinance to reverse the people’s decision. This ordinance was passed without hearing. It was placed on the ballot and an uneducated public put “at large” voting back in place. The November 5th election shows the “Brenner effect” of Ken Mann and Carl Weimer not getting a majority vote in the district they will end up representing.

Right now, council candidates must live in their district, pass a primary in their district and then be elected county-wide. In 2013, a majority of the democratic votes came from the 1st District, which includes south Bellingham because that’s where the Democratic ground game focused their efforts. This increased turnout helped reelect Weimer and Mann.

Crabtree has been beating this drum for many years. He wrote the PRO position in the 2005 voters pamphlet for district only voting, however this may not be a winning strategy for the Republicans. 

District only voting

Click to enlarge

Here is the breakdown by county district of the Democratic votes for the last four years.  As you can see, the Democratic total of votes continues to grow in all three districts. This is especially telling since the last redistricting (2012) added more conservative precincts to the 2nd District, and moved more liberal precincts into the 1st. Even with that boost, the Republicans are losing ground county-wide.

Republican Chair Charlie Crabtree

Republican Chair Charlie Crabtree

If we move to district only voting, it would go into effect in 2017. If these trends are to continue, that would put the 3rd district at 48.3% Democratic and the 2nd at 44%. With Carl Weimer most likely retiring from council in 2017, it would mean a competitive race in the 3rd, and Ken Mann staring down a difficult situation in the 2nd. Except by this point, Mann will have served for 8 years, and each year he does better than the year previous. The incumbent factor is hard to shake (see Brenner, Barbara).

No matter how the issue of district-only voting is resolved, the Charter Review Commission is a vital pivot point for elections in Whatcom. If you are interested in serving, reach out to whichever party you identify with and let them know.

For more “Keep it Simple, Sweeney” explanations of local political issues, check out some of these articles: Bellingham Waterfront 101, what is the Growth Management Act, and why can’t we pass gun legislation?



  1. I wonder what those voting trends show in prior years. I am not confident about a trend over four years because unrelated factors might be pushing those numbers one direction or the other in each given year. 2010, for example, was the tea party rebellion, which would account for the lower Dem turnout relative to Reps. In 2013, many observers agree that the Dem/anti-coal vote showed up in large numbers, in part due to the success of the coordinated “Whatcom Wins” campaign. Again, this could be a “one-off” effect. If we could learn who was moving here and make educated guess about how these groups vote, we could hypothesize how the votes will stack up in the future. -RS

    • That’s a very good point. I tried to pull data farther back but it is in a difficult format to access however, I can tell you that demographically, the trends favor Democrats. Retiring Seattlites moving to Birch Bay combined with increased Latino and Lummi voter participation are pretty strong trends in our area. But you are right, it is a small sample size.

  2. Fits the general pattern seen nationally that, rather than modify their positions to better serve a changing electorate, conservatives continue to slice the model ever finer—eliminating voters, destroying votes, creating obstruction, gerrymandering outcomes, secession, etc. It’s all very-race-to-the-bottom as they seek to carve out their own improbable nation from the ruins their policies have created.

  3. I’d like to see a move to proportional representation on the council and choice voting for the county executive. With both Democrats and Republicans competing to serve corporate, pro-global climate holocaust, surveillance state interests, privatizing interests, we need a way in for third parties of all stripes!

  4. Whatcom County did not have a local voters pamphlet in 2005. The Charter Review Commission elected in 2004 placed Amendment 3 (local voters pamphlet) on the 2005 general election ballot. The yes vote was 60.4 percent.

    • Thank you for that clarification!

  5. Has ALEC engaged on this topic elsewhere? This would seem to be a VERY cost effective way to push their policy objectives. Throwing money at candidates on their team could easily tip the least known elected position locally.

  6. The vote for Charter Commission will provide us with one more year of trend data. Both major parties will undoubtedly push a “slate” in each District and the way it looks now, the Democrat slate will win handily in District One, but the Republican slate will likely win the other two. So, Charlie will have another chance to put by District voting up to the electorate as a whole.

    Irrespective of the slates elected, the new Charter Commissioners will likely put partisan party interests ahead of County interests.

    Today, for the first time in history, more people self-identify as independents than as members of either of the two failing parties.

    Is anybody interested in running on an “independent slate” ?

  7. Stoney and Bob, what I don’t understand is why the insistence on a third party which, in most cases, simply serves to split lefter-leaning votes and allow right-wing candidates to win. Thinking Bush-Gore-Nader. Why don’t more progressives do what the Tea Party did? They’ve radicalized the right but within the Republican party. Are progressives not as smart as the TP? Can’t we exert influence on the Dems?

  8. And, BTW, Riley, thank you for this. Not an issue that I would have ever paid attention to, but your description of what the commission could attempt to do is informative and a red flag. District voting. Good lord.

  9. No Terry. We cannot exert influence on the Dems. We can certainly influence their platform; indeed we have, but we cannot influence their elected representatives.. I’m sure you’ve read the recent academic study that showed that public opinion has zero influence on legislation. And, that study only looked at things up until 2002 before things got worse. We are an oligarchy and both parties feed upon the money of the fraction of 1%. The Republicans are simply more patent about it

    90% of the public wants background checks strengthened. The Democrats support this, but God forbid they go to the mat over it.

    Corporations are people; money is speech. Silly, silly statements to 80% of Americans including most Republicans. Here in Washington, an incredible amount of effort is being put into an incredibly weak initiative that will direct the Secretary of State to go to the Governor and ask him to ask our Congresspersons to back a Constitutional Amendment. Wow! Obama could go on television tomorrow and say he is sick of big money controlling things and put his Party in full court press mode for a Constitutional Amendment. He would be putting the Republicans on the defensive in a major way and maybe even take back the House rather than losing the Senate. Not worth it. He would lose the support of those who like being able to pull the strings.

    The “two party” system is a disaster. I wish there were no parties, but we are desperately in need of third parties to break the stranglehold. Youth has got it right. The bottom line is that moneyed interests are in total control. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party has tried for years to influence policy. It gets speech but not action.

    I still hate Ralph Nader, but you and I will continue to be on different sides with different studies to quote as to whether he cost Gore the election.

    The “truth” as this ideologue sees it is that the Parties want you to think that defections will allow bad guys to get elected. My own feeling (this will turn a lot of people who don’t want to hear such talk off) is that our survival depends on breaking up the oligarchy…and soon. And, it ain’t going to happen if the two parties have their ways.

    • Sick of the two party monotony? Try Libertarian. I, like you did in your campaign for City Council, take no donations from corporations or special interests. The only debt owed by a representative is to the citizenry, not corporations or business interests. That said, I may have my own opinions about the Cherry Point terminal as a former tribal fisheries biologist, but those are my thoughts alone. The role of government in this situation is to determine legality, not pick sides. If the SSA terminal causes damage, they should be held accountable in court and pay restitution directly to the suffering parties, not served with arbitrary (often insignificant compared to the magnitude of damage inflicted on the environment, social fabric, and economy) fines going to DoE and EPA coffers.

  10. Mr. Crabtree accuses the public of being “uneducated” on the topic when they voted in 2007 to reverse their vote of 2005. Did they forget something in the intervening years and they became “uneducated”? No, they experienced an election where they only got to vote for 1 candidate instead of 3. The people did not like that, and they voted back the original system. I am tired of Crabtree etc trying to change the rules instead of changing their failed policies. I think it is better government to have countywide voting because it doesn’t lead to horse-trading and pork barrel politics. Either way, if I run in 2017, I will win whatever the system of vote conting.

  11. […] plays an incredibly influential role in how our county functions. For all the background, check out my article here. Now that filing week has closed, let’s take a look at who is running for this fifteen person […]

  12. […] for the Coal PAC last year, served as host of the event. She stressed the importance of voting, why the Charter Review is so important and introducing the moderator for the event, Richard Thorndike. Stressing their non-partisan […]

  13. […] vote NO MORE than five candidates. For more information about what the heck Charter Review is, read my article here. For more information about who these people are, check out my article here. My main criteria for […]

  14. Yes, it has been a while now since you posted this, but the article looked interesting.

    While it is true that district only voting would benefit conservatives in the county council races, it would play no impact in the Gateway Pacific Terminal decision. If district only voting were passed, the first county council races it would have an effect in would be in 2017, which would be after the decision is made.

    For full disclosure: I oppose district only voting.

  15. […] constitution. Already on the menu – switching county council races to District Only voting, a move that may benefit conservatives in the short term but could shut them out of County Government in the long-term. Any proposals put forth by the […]

  16. […] I illustrated in my early post about their efforts, District Only voting will not have a big impact on the ideological make-up of the council. Ken Mann will have a very competitive race in 2017 […]

  17. […] important, Whatcom County overall is becoming more liberal. Although District 3 usually votes around 47 percent Democratic in county elections, […]

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