Things don’t always come easy on the road to Paradise. Election wins certainly don’t.
But don’t tell Garry Olson your vote doesn’t matter. The chief of the rural fire district serving Mount Rainier gateway communities knows that every ballot can make an impact.
It was true in August, and it was true again this month, as a tax-raising measure for Fire Protection District No. 23 that narrowly failed in the primary was approved in the general election.
By a single vote.
The final count — 306 yes votes, 305 no votes — was confirmed Tuesday as Pierce County joined Washington’s other 38 counties in certifying its Nov. 6 election results. The book will be closed on the statewide election when the secretary of state completes the certification process Dec. 5.
The suspense ended weeks ago in most contests, such as the governor’s race, same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization. A proposed sales-tax increase to restore some Pierce Transit bus service looked close for a while, but its defeat was cinched by mid-November.
The final count showed the transit measure went down by 704 votes out of 201,182 counted.
Residents of the Ashford-Elbe-Alder area were left hanging, however, as they waited weeks to see whether a six-year fire district levy-lid lift would pass, raising their tax rate to $1.50 per $1,000 of property value.
Pass, it did — by the slimmest of margins.
“I tell people that if you don’t think your vote counts, look at us,” said Olson, the fire chief.
The District 23 levy was by far the tightest issue on the local ballot. County Auditor Julie Anderson said her staff watched it closely over several days of counting – and that the one-vote spread didn’t budge after Nov. 15.
The plot thickened, Anderson said, because of a single challenged ballot in the fire district’s voting area. Elections staffers spotted a signature discrepancy, so they contacted the voter by mail and twice by telephone. They received no response.
That meant the signature was never “cured,” and the vote went uncounted. In fact, the envelope was never unsealed, so it’s unknown whether it might have forced a tie.
“It’s kind of a mystery,” Anderson said Tuesday.
Fire District 23 is spread across three ZIP codes and serves about 1,500 residents — plus tens of thousands more Mount Rainier visitors who lodge in foothills towns or pass through them each year on the road to Paradise. The district has lost state Department of Natural Resources funding support in recent years.
But Olson said he takes nothing for granted during election season and has “numbed up” to close outcomes over his nine years as chief. The district put the same measure on the ballot in August, and it lost — by 5 votes.
“It’s always a nail-biter, it seems,” he deadpanned.
In Pierce County as a whole, Anderson said, this presidential election generated a record number of received ballots (352,548) from a record number of active registered voters (442,985). The elections office had a record number of employees (476, mostly temporary hires) to help count all those ballots.
But the county fell short of the 81 percent turnout it attained in the 2008 presidential election, as well as the 80 percent turnout Anderson had predicted for this election.
Turnout hit 78.89 percent — or 79.53 percent when Anderson uses a more generous formula of ballots that were received but not counted.
Anderson’s biggest takeaway from her first presidential election as auditor? A strong reminder that local voters can’t be pigeonholed according to party line or other factors. Case in point: They favored Democrat Barack Obama for president (54.05 percent) but went with Republican Rob McKenna for governor (51.28 percent).
“Pierce County voters,” Anderson said, “are fiercely independent.”
Matt Misterek: 253-597-8472