Today was an election day for voters in a number of jurisdictions across Washington State, although you could be forgiven for not knowing that because scant attention was paid to the election in the mass media and on social media.
In King County, six jurisdictions placed measures on the ballot for consideration by voters. The Lake Washington School District proposed a capital levy, Public Hospital District #2 (EvergreenHealth) proposed a bond measure, and two fire districts asked voters to approve continuation of benefit charges. A third fire district asked its constituents if they wanted to merge into another fire district.
Finally, the Vashon-Maury Island Park and Recreation District asked voters in the county’s westernmost jurisdiction to extend an expiring property tax levy to fund operations and maintenance costs from 2020 through 2023.
The initial returns are now in, and here’s how each measure is faring.
The Lake Washington School District capital levy is passing by a comfortable margin. 53.95% of voters participating were backing the measure, while 46.05% were opposed. The threshold for passage is a simple majority, thanks to the 2007 constitutional amendment that lowered the bar for passage of school levies.
The levy is for six years. If ultimately approved, $120 million would be raised and the district says it would be spent on the following projects:
Permanent classroom additions (capacity for 1,052 students):
- Lake Washington High School (20 classrooms)
- Rachel Carson Elementary (4 classrooms)
- Benjamin Franklin Elementary (8 classrooms)
- Rose Hill Elementary (8 classrooms)
- Mark Twain Elementary (4 classrooms)
Core facilities and common spaces
- Additional auxiliary gymnasium and commons space at Lake Washington High School
- Additional core facilities* at:
- Rachel Carson Elementary
- Benjamin Franklin Elementary
- Rose Hill Elementary
- Mark Twain Elementary
- Exterior security cameras at elementary schools.
- Modifications to entrances of:
- Eastlake High School
- Lake Washington High School
- Redmond High School
Also passing are the two benefit charge propositions.
Woodinville Fire & Rescue’s benefit charge has the support of 83.42% of voters in its jurisdiction, with only 16.58% opposed. King County Fire Protection District #40 is doing even better, with 87.67% approval.
Meanwhile, the proposal to merge Fire Protection District #10 (which is located in the Fall City area) into the larger nearby Fire Protection District #27 (Eastside Fire and Rescue) is failing. 54.7% of voters there are saying no, while 45.3% are saying yes. Based on these early results, it looks like a merger isn’t going to happen.
The EvergreenHealth bond is also failing. 57.38% of voters in Public Hospital District #2 are backing the proposition, which is a robust majority, but the measure actually needs a 60% yes vote and a minimum turnout of 40% to pass under the Washington State Constitution because it is a bond measure.
Voters were asked to sign off on $345 million in general obligation bonds for seismic safety and other capital improvements, as stated in the ballot title:
The Board of Commissioners of King County Public Hospital District No. 2 adopted Resolution No. 895-19 concerning a proposition to finance improvements to its health care facilities.
The improvements include Seismic and Infrastructure upgrades; a new Critical Care Unit; updating the Family Maternity Center; new Medical Office Buildings for Specialty Care Expansion; Technology Systems Improvements; and other improvements. Approval of the ballot proposition would authorize issuance of up to $345,000,000 of general obligation bonds maturing within thirty years to pay for such improvements and the levy of annual excess property taxes to pay the bonds, all as provided in Resolution No. 895-19.
The EvergreenHealth Foundation — a 501(c)(3) charity affiliated with the people who run the hospital district — poured more than three hundred thousand dollars into a campaign to convince voters in the Kirkland and Redmond area to vote yes. Curiously, the hospital district’s board opted against participating in the voter’s pamphlet, causing King County Elections to issue the following notice:
Why are there measures on my ballot that are not in my pamphlet?
Pamphlets are only printed for a special election when requested by a district. For this election, Public Hospital District No. 2 did not request to participate in the voter’s pamphlet.
The above disclaimer appeared on the back of the fold-out voter’s pamphlet tucked into each ballot packet mailed to voters in the Redmond-Kirkland area.
The Approve EvergreenHealth effort turned to well known right wing operatives to try to pitch the hefty bond measures to voters, including Matthew Lundh and Josh Amato’s Mercer Island-based Sermo Digital, which has done work for Rob McKenna, McKenna’s strategist Randy Pepple, Steve Litzow, former Ohio governor John Kasich, and ShiftWA, a right wing website that consists almost exclusively of blog posts denouncing progressive elected officials and organizations.
Additionally, an outfit called Elephant Grassroots was hired to do phonebanking, and GMA Research of Bellevue was commissioned to survey voters.
(If you’re wondering why right wing operatives would be hired to pitch a bond measure to voters, the answer is that there are several Republicans on the board that governs King County’s Public Hospital District #2.)
Sermo Digital created and mailed at least three direct mail pieces to voters in an attempt to persuade them to vote yes. Each heavily emphasized seismic safety, with one asking: “Is your hospital ready for the ‘big one’?” and noting: “Scientists say a 9.0 earthquake is coming, we just don’t know when.”
Emergency preparedness is not a theme we usually see in campaign ads. Sermo Digital was working with a premise that had a lot of potential.
Unfortunately for their client, their execution was bad.
For example, they tried to incorporate photos of the actual hospital into their mailers instead of relying exclusively on stock photography. Good idea, but… some of the source images were of an insufficient resolution for print production, resulting in mailers with fuzzy, pixelated photo backgrounds. Yikes.
Worse, the firm failed to introduce a human element into the ads. All the photos in the three mail pieces obtained by the Northwest Progressive Institute are of buildings or hospital equipment. None are of people.
Furthermore, the ads do not explain how the whole community benefits from a hospital complex that is seismically sound. The ads only explain how the hospital would benefit. For example, here’s a paragraph from one of the mailers:
The core areas of the hospital contain critical services and infrastructure that allow the rest of the campus to operate. They also happen to be housed in our original (and oldest) parts of the hospital. Retrofitting these 1970s buildings — and not tearing them down — will ensure that patients will experience less impact as we improve safety.
This paragraph sounds like it could have come out of a strategic plan written by a hospital administrator. A better approach would have been to create mailers starring people from Evergreen, like a doctor, a nurse, and a patient, with each explaining the value and necessity of the bond measure to the community.
Ordinarily, securing 57% of the vote would be considered a smashing success. But the bar for passage of this bond measure is 60%. It seems unlikely the hospital will be able to secure both the 60% yes vote and the 40% minimum turnout it needs.
EvergreenHealth’s board set itself up for failure from the get-go by submitting this bond measure to the April ballot instead of the November ballot and then opting not to participate in the voter’s pamphlet for the special election.
The Vashon-Maury parks levy also appears headed for defeat. Currently, 52.28% of voters on the islands are backing the levy, while 47.72% are opposed.
Like the EvergreenHealth bond, the measure needs a 60% yes vote.
“This levy money will be approximately a 34% increase, about $450,000 more collected,” wrote proponents Hilary Emmer, Karl Stetson, David Hattery in a statement urging a yes vote published in the voter’s pamphlet.
“Over the next four years, this will allow us to tackle essential infrastructure projects and needed maintenance: to Agren and BARC fields, Lisabeula and Agren parking lots, major work on Belle Baldwin house, Inspiration Point wall, various projects at Point Robinson, install restrooms at all our parks, and work on invasive species remediation,” they explained.
Since Republicans in the Legislature aren’t interested in changing the Constitution to lower the threshold for passage of school bonds, it seems unlikely that the sixty/forty requirement for bonds of all kinds is going away anytime soon.
However, the Legislature could, by majority vote, embrace the idea of less is more and abolish the February and April special election windows, leaving local governments with just two higher turnout options for future ballot measures: the Top Two election or the general election. Getting rid of special election windows would save money and reduce election fatigue. It’s a move we need to make.