One of the oft-repeated observations over the last few weeks as the drama surrounding the Thurston Conservation District has unfolded is that conservation districts are weird in how they run their elections.
It is head scratching that conservation districts, unlike every other form of government (including major parties who elect precinct committee officers), run their own elections. This results in seemingly low-rent affairs that include needing to drive to Tumwater to old school drop a ballot in a ballot box.
The history behind why conservation districts hold their own elections goes back to the formation of the districts in the late 1930s. This is when the Dust Bowl spurred Washington state to first allow their establishment.
Conservation districts aren’t the only special districts in Washington, they’re just the type that we’re currently worried about. And, it turns out, they aren’t the only ones exempt from the general election laws, but those other districts (like drainage and diking districts) still require that a voter also be a landowner (therefore a property taxpayer) in the district).
Sidenote: Someone can correct me on this, but it seems like most of the special districts are rural in nature. I mean, they seem like they’re created to address some specific aspect of rural life or commerce.
Conservation districts strayed from that landowner provision throughout the years, it seems almost by mistake. The best way to explain it would be to understand how landowners in a neighborhood pay for a new sidewalk or sewer line if the city can’t or won’t pay for it. They petition for and form a local improvement district, and tax themselves for the improvement.
When conservation districts were first formed in 1939 only landowners could vote in their elections. The federal government sent down a model state soil conservation act in 1937, and after Washington adopted ours, the Palouse took no time to form their first district in October 1939.
The mood of this article pretty much gives you what you need to know.
Conservation districts were not general governments. They were somewhere between all the other sort of special districts that had and were already allowed that provided services to specific needs (irrigation districts, diking districts) and general purpose rural organizations like granges.
The law changed in 1973 to allow “land occupiers” to vote, seemingly to allow people who were leasing land or otherwise using it to also vote.
And then in 1999, the law changed again to allow for any registered voter to vote for conservation district supervisor. It is important to point out that according to the legislative record, this was totally by accident. HB 1747 was passed in 1999 to create a way for cities to leave conservation district boundaries. There were concerns about overlapping programs, so cities wanted a way out. To shoehorn in the petition process that a city would use, they put in a reference into the conservation district laws to “registered voters” instead of “land occupiers.”
And this is when it all got very janky in regards to all registered voters.
For a hot second, the Attorney general said that those references meant that conservation districts were covered under the general election law. The conservation district elections in 2001 were handled by county auditors, like most other government elections. Because local governments have to pay a prorated amount for their participation in an election, if conservation districts didn’t hold their elections with a lot of other jurisdictions, it became very cost prohibitive.
So, with the support of a lot of organized agricultural interests in 2002 (Farm Bureau and the Dairy and Cattlemen’s associations), the legislature voted to leave in the part where they allowed any registered voter to participate. But they also clearly reverted to the old rules of conservation districts being able to run their own elections without the county auditor.
In 2002, this wasn’t so transparently a big difference because Washington had not yet changed over to an all-mail system. But it seems very odd now.
So, in short, it has always been that way, but the rules changed over time to allow for more participation, but also not deliberately. It costs less to do it this way and at a point when the legislature could have made conservation districst play by the same rules, they decided not to.