When our state’s conservation districts hold elections to fill volunteer positions on their boards in 2021, they will do so using a revised process designed to improve accountability and make things more clear for candidates and voters.
At their September 17 meeting, members of the Washington State Conservation Commission — the state agency charged with establishing the rules for and overseeing conservation district elections — unanimously voted to make several changes to state regulations for conservation district elections.
Each of Washington’s 45 conservation districts is governed by a board of five local volunteers, called supervisors. Three supervisors from each board are elected by and accountable to their community. Conservation districts conduct elections to fill positions on their boards during the first quarter of the calendar year (Jan-Mar) in accordance with procedures set by the Conservation Commission.
The Commission’s vote to make changes to election procedures came on the heels of a two-year review of conservation district elections. Dean Longrie, Chair of the Conservation Commission, said the Commission made a commitment in 2018 to work with conservation districts and stakeholders to review and improve the election process. A committee was formed and, after a series of meetings and cooperative review, the committee brought the Commission a package of suggested changes.
“It’s vital that our communities not only know about the public services available to them through conservation districts, but that they also clearly know how they can get involved as board candidates and voters,” said Longrie. “The suite of changes the Commission approved this month is a good step in that direction.”
One significant change approved by the Commission is to eliminate language that allowed a conservation district to cancel their election if only one candidate was running. Around 67 percent of conservation district elections were canceled in the most recent election cycle due to this rule. Now conservation districts must hold an election, even if there’s only one candidate on the ballot, in order to give voters the opportunity to consider the candidate and participate in the election.
Other election changes approved by the Commission include:
- Eliminate restrictions on write-in candidates. This will make write-ins eligible even if there’s a declared candidate on the ballot.
- Eliminate the requirement that candidates must be nominated and file a nominating petition to have their name preprinted on the ballot. This change will open the election to any interested person who meets position qualifications.
- Set clear procedures for filing a complaint about an election or challenging an election outcome.
- Require all conservation districts to have one staff person trained as an election supervisor.
The rule changes also included several technical corrections and edits.
“These changes get us closer to our goal of a more transparent, inclusive, and accessible election process for the public,” said Jeanette Dorner, President of the Washington Association of Conservation Districts and member of the Commission. “There’s more work to do, and these discussions will continue.”
The Conservation Commission will engage conservation districts and stakeholders over the next few months to explore more potential election improvements. They plan to consider other election changes at their December meeting.
Conservation districts are non-regulatory, community-based hubs of natural resource expertise and funding. They engage landowners with voluntary actions that keep our air, water, soil, and habitats healthy for all. Each of Washington’s 39 counties is represented by at least one conservation district.