Whitman County auditor candidate Nathan Horter and incumbent Eunice Coker both think voters should make their choice based on Coker's performance during her four years in the office.
But their assessments of that performance diverge sharply.
"The people in the county need to think about who's representing them in the courthouse," Horter said. "Have they done a good job on the merits?"
Horter said Coker's office could have done a better job in three areas: educating county voters about the new pick-a-party primary, using Help America Vote Act funds and listening to constituents.
Coker counters that the auditor's office is now humming along, after she found it in a shambles in 2002.
"The reason I ran for this office four years ago is because things just weren't working," Coker said. "The county's bond rating was dropping, the bills weren't being paid. That's not the case any more."
She said the office was able to make the turnaround with the dedicated work of staff and the expertise she's amassed during 18 years of working in various county positions. And her challenger might not understand all the complexities of the auditor's office, she added.
"That's one of the things I'm noticing from the Democrats, they don't have a real in-depth knowledge of what we're dealing with here in this office, as far as staff and time," especially regarding myriad changes to state election laws, Coker said.
At a recent meeting of state auditors in Wenatchee, Coker said she learned there have been more than 350 election law changes in the last two years. "What that does is it leaves the groundwork back at the county auditor's office. We're hustling to comply with the new law, or the change in the law, or the court order that just came down that's got to be in effect within a few days."
With a staff of only two full-time people, Coker said the confusion over mail-in balloting and the pick-a-party primary was widespread and inevitable.
Horter said some constituents are telling him they blame the auditor's office for the unpopular primary format. He said such voter ire was likely because Coker didn't properly use all the tools at her disposal to educate them.
"There was some confusion about why we switched (from the blanket primary). People have been blaming everybody from local officials to the secretary of state to the Legislature," when they should blame the courts, he said.
If put in a similar situation, Horter said he would have better utilized the county voter's pamphlet and Web site for outreach and education.
Horter said he does realize the complexities of an office that not only deals with elections and voter registration, but licensing, legal documents and the financial business of the county, such as accounts payable and payroll. He said his focus on outreach would include an emphasis on public input that would extend to all those areas.
"I think if you're going to craft effective policy, public input comes first." But that input should be balanced with strong leadership, he said. "You can't make the popular decision all the time. If you can't do that, why be in public service?"
He also believes electing Democrats in a county that is always dominated by Republicans is a fundamental necessity. "It's important to have a diversity of people."
Coker said the question of party affiliation may become moot. She said rumors are starting to circulate that county elected offices, save for the commissioners, may become nonpartisan. This is the first election I can remember where the opposition candidates all claimed that main their qualification for office was that they belonged to a different party.