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Election analysis: Support for Whatcom jail proposal broad, deep

After two past defeats, measure passed in a landslide amid high turnout

A blue jail sign is posted outside of the county jail.
The proposition on the Nov. 7 ballot calling for a sales tax to fund behavioral health care and a new jail won in a landslide of “yes” ballots that overwhelmed the “no’s” by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. (Ron Judd/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ralph Schwartz Staff Reporter

Election watchers in Whatcom County said the vote would be close. 

Instead, the proposition on the Nov. 7 ballot calling for a sales tax to fund a new jail and behavioral health care won in a landslide of “yes” ballots that overwhelmed the “no’s” by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

The measure failed in only three precincts in Bellingham, a stark contrast to 2017. It was also broadly supported in cities and rural areas of Whatcom County.

The county saw another noteworthy outcome this past election, which was certified on Nov. 28.  

Likely due in part to the interest in the 0.2% sales tax proposal, Whatcom County saw the second highest turnout in the state, in an otherwise disappointing showing by Washington voters this year.

The county’s 51.3% turnout was second only to Columbia County, in the southeast corner of the state, which only has 2,863 registered voters (about the same number as Nooksack and Everson combined).

County Auditor Diana Bradrick, who is retiring after this year, noted in an interview last month that Whatcom County historically has high turnout.

A crowd mingles at Ponderosa Beer and Books with many drinking and enjoying the food.
A crowd mingles at Ponderosa Beer and Books Nov. 7 where Bellingham City Council candidates Liz Darrow and Eamonn Collins gathered for election night. (Andrew Ford/Cascadia Daily News)

She also offered a thought on this year’s good local result, especially compared to the statewide turnout rate of 36.4% — the lowest on record for a general election, according to The Seattle Times.

“One could say that, given the races and measures on the ballot, people felt they were important enough to turn out,” Bradrick said.

County voters showed more than mere interest in the jail measure. They showed overwhelming support, passing it 63% to 37%.

During the campaign, jail planners were predicting 53% or 54% “yes” votes, county council chair Barry Buchanan said in an interview the day after Election Day.

“Our planning team that put this whole thing together, our jaws just dropped” after results were released, Buchanan said.

Getting to ‘yes’

In a county known for its stark political divisions — blue in Bellingham and red in most of the rest of the county, with Ferndale and Blaine showing shades of purple — the jail vote was strikingly monochromatic.

The jail and social services measure passed with 68% of the Lynden vote, 67% of the Blaine vote, 62% of the vote in unincorporated parts of Whatcom County, and 61% of the Ferndale vote. 

Most striking were the results in Bellingham, where the jail measure received more than 63% “yes” votes. This was in stark contrast to 2017, when a similar 0.2% sales tax to fund jail construction only attracted 32% of the Bellingham vote.

Zooming down to the precinct level, the jail proposition this year won 63 out of 66 Bellingham precincts, losing only around Western Washington University and in one precinct in the Roosevelt neighborhood.

Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis, a longtime proponent of a new county jail, said in a November interview that “yes” votes were harder to come by in the southern half of the county, particularly in Bellingham. The key, he said, was the robust plan for behavioral health care this time around.

Protesters yell as speakers recount each time a new jail was rejected by voters while holding signs in protest.
Protestors speak out against the proposal for a new jail on July 11 in Bellingham. The jail proposition this year won 63 out of 66 Bellingham precincts. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)

“To get that south-of-the-Smith-Road vote, the behavioral health component needed to be there,” Korthuis said Nov. 8. “We had to swing a lot of votes in Bellingham.”

But those who followed the jail campaign closely agreed that no one factor could explain a swing as large as Bellingham’s — from an 8,779-vote loss in 2017 to an 8,551-vote win in 2023. 

“There’s no single answer,” Buchanan said in a Dec. 6 interview. “I think it was a culmination of things.”

He lauded the “transparent, open, inclusive process” with the public that he has helped lead since touring the county for “listening sessions” after the failure of the 2017 measure.

As a result of what Buchanan said was good public process, voters were better informed about what was in the jail plan, in the council member’s view. 

The proposal includes more than just a bigger jail, likely to be built on 40 acres in south Ferndale. A 121-page action plan also calls for a multi-million-dollar investment in behavioral health facilities and programs. 

Lisa McShane, who ran Donnell Tanksley’s campaign for sheriff on the same ballot this year, also said multiple forces moved people to a decisive “yes” vote on the jail measure.

“There was more confidence in the plan this time,” McShane said. “The plan in 2017 was visibly terrible. This time, it did encompass a lot of behavioral health components.”

McShane led effective “vote no” campaigns against the jail propositions in 2015 and 2017. This time, she said, the pro-jail campaign faced no significant opposition.

Buchanan said he worked behind the scenes to subdue the voice of one group that could have been a powerful critic during the campaign.

He lobbied the Whatcom Democrats not to brand the jail proposal with a “no” endorsement on the flyer they would mail across the county, just as voters were considering their ballots.

“That was one of the hardest things I worked on during the campaign that nobody knew,” Buchanan said. “That was a huge priority for me. That could have changed things.”

Different colors and sizes of handcuffs and belts hang from a rack in the booking office of the Whatcom County Jail.
Handcuffs and belts hang from a rack in the booking office of the Whatcom County Jail. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

The law-and-order vote

Buchanan also noted that the perceived decline of downtown Bellingham during the COVID-19 pandemic may have been good fortune for the 2023 jail measure. 

A precinct-level analysis shows that voters in Bellingham’s downtown core went from 25% in support of the jail in 2017 to 63% in 2023. 

“We had conditions that were favorable — that’s a terrible thing to have to say — from a crime standpoint,” Buchanan said.

“The perception of crime rates, and the condition of everything in Bellingham, has drastically changed since 2017,” he added. “I think people have a keener eye on public safety than they did before.”

Even jail-planning insiders who publicly criticized the proposal, such as Jason McGill, executive director of Northwest Youth Services, recognized its appeal.

He cited deteriorating conditions in the existing jail as one motivator for voters.

“I also believe that the community is excited about the behavioral health dollars that will potentially be allocated, in addition to the jail,” McGill said.

Cascadia Daily News published a special report in November 2022 exploring the county’s effort to build a new jail. The reporting found conditions deemed inhumane for both inmates and jail workers: overcrowded and windowless cells, black mold and no facilities for those in a mental health crisis.

Now that the jail measure has passed, and sales tax revenue will start coming into county coffers in the second half of 2024, critics such as McGill say community advocates need to remain vigilant over future planning.

He called for an accountability committee, “which will ensure that the dollars are being allocated appropriately.”

“In addition, we need to have county council start the process of releasing a lot more funding to organizations like [Northwest Youth Services], to provide young people with the proper care that they deserve,” he added.

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