Competition rare in Franklin County elections

The August primary will mark the first time in 20 years that the Franklin County auditor and treasurer have competition for their seats.

And of the eight county officials up for election, only half have more than one candidate for voters to chose from. Uncontested races have been common in Franklin County for at least 20 years.

From commissioner to coroner, not a single four-year position has drawn two or more candidates in the six elections since 1990. And the county assessor race has been uncontested for all six elections from 1990 to 2010.

Gary Bullert, Columbia Basin College professor of political science, said competition in all elected positions in primary and general elections is important.

"Putting their feet to the fire every two to four years is a good idea," he said.

Competition makes people justify why they should be elected and gives the public a chance to question them, Bullert said.

But in the 2010 election, no Democrat filed for assessor, coroner, sheriff and or District 3 commissioner, and no Republican filed for county clerk. Filing ended June 11.

Bill DeBoard, Franklin County Democratic Party treasurer, said positions are unopposed because there isn't someone else qualified and experienced to run for them.

A candidate's party doesn't change how they represent the public, he said.

"Party affiliation is irrelevant in a county election," DeBoard said.

Assessor Steve Marks agreed that party affiliation has no bearing on county-level positions in which officials manage an office rather than create policy.

Different groups have tried to get the positions changed to nonpartisan, but efforts so far have failed, he said.

"We are not policy steerers," he said. "We are basically elected to manage an office."

Marks, who was appointed in 1994 and has been re-elected without opposition since then, said the expense and time-consuming nature of campaigning can stop some from seeking office. In addition to the $837.72 filing fee he paid for the 2010 election, if he had an opponent, Marks estimates campaign costs could be $5,000 or more.

Filing fees for county positions range from $1,285.44 for prosecuting attorney to $736.35 for county commission in District 3.

The cost of a campaign can prevent middle-class Americans from running for office, Bullert said.

Marks said he's grateful he hasn't faced opposition because of campaigning costs and time demands.

He'd like to think lack of opposition comes from him doing a good job. Marks said his policy is to deal fairly with all who have questions about their property valuations.

Clerk Michael Killian, who was appointed in 2001 and has been re-elected in uncontested races, said some don't realize his position and others at the county courthouse are elected.

Killian still tries to attend community events during an election year. But he said he doesn't put out signs, ring doorbells or participate in candidate forums.

Killian said he isn't asked to speak at the forums because he's been the sole candidate. Killian and Marks are running without opposition this year.

Even the county policy makers, the commissioners, have had elections with little or no competition.

Incumbent Rick Miller and Basin City farmer Hans "Jochen" Engelke, both Republicans, are competing for District 3 commissioner in the August primary.

And four years earlier, Miller beat out six Republicans and one Democrat to get elected. But the 2006 commissioner race is the only time more than three people ran for the same position in 20 years.

Between 1990 and 2004, the District 3 position had one candidate per election.

The other two commissioner positions are not up for election this year, but both had periods with uncontested races. Former Commissioner Sue Miller was unopposed in the 2000 election in District 2.

And former Commissioner Neva Corkrum was unopposed in 2000 and 2004 for District 1, before Commission Chair Brad Peck unseated her in 2008.

Bullert said he thinks political parties need to encourage more people to get involved.

Bullert said the lack of interest and participation in politics by average citizens concerns him. People have become indifferent and complacent.

"Uncontested races are simply a symptom of people basically opting out of the political process," he said.