Bellingham mayor's race in limbo after injunction

Candidate who filed petition to be on ballot seeks recount
May 22, 2023 at 5:32 p.m.
Joel Johnson filed an injunction in Whatcom County Superior Court May 22, seeking a recount of the signatures on his petition to appear on the Aug. 1 primary ballot in the Bellingham mayor's race.
Joel Johnson filed an injunction in Whatcom County Superior Court May 22, seeking a recount of the signatures on his petition to appear on the Aug. 1 primary ballot in the Bellingham mayor's race. (Ralph Schwartz/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

The slate of candidates for mayor of Bellingham is not set yet.

Joel Johnson, who submitted more than 2,500 signatures in lieu of paying a $2,211 filing fee, is fighting to be the sixth entrant in a crowded field for the city’s mayor’s race. 

Johnson filed an injunction in superior court May 22, ordering the Whatcom County Auditor’s Office to hold off on announcing the candidates for Bellingham mayor until after the signatures on his petition get a proper count.

Johnson claims in his court filing that work to validate the 2,506 signatures he had collected to get his name on the ballot was “flawed,” due to a malfunctioning computer system and user error.

In an interview, Johnson said that as he watched the signature verification process on May 20 in the auditor’s office, it appeared that some of the petitions had been improperly scanned, so the computer was prompting election workers to check the wrong signatures. By that Saturday afternoon, workers had rejected 306 signatures, Johnson said, essentially ending his bid to appear on the city’s ballot in August.

State law allows a candidate to file a petition with signatures in an amount equal to the number of dollars in an office’s filing fee, and to submit the petition in lieu of the fee. The auditor’s office is then charged with making sure every signature matches that of an active registered voter within the office’s jurisdiction — in this case, within the Bellingham city limits.

Johnson’s court injunction requests a recount of petition signatures “using tested and vetted methodology, up to and including paper verification by hand.”

“Honestly, I was under the impression that was what they were going to be doing” during the initial count on Saturday, Johnson said in the interview.

Johnson's court filing mentions that he changed his last name from Nelson to Johnson on April 28. Johnson said he was adopted and wanted his birth name to be his legal name as he pursued public office.

Johnson said he received an email on May 22, saying the auditor’s office was postponing its announcement of who will appear on the ballot in the Bellingham mayor’s race.

“They had begun honoring the order,” Johnson said.

“There is no formal determination on his signature petition,” county Auditor Diana Bradrick said. She declined further comment, adding only that Johnson’s injunction was under review by the county prosecutor’s office.

“I’m waiting to hear from the courts, in terms of the next steps,” Johnson said.

So far, the five candidates confirmed in the Bellingham mayor’s race are incumbent Seth Fleetwood, Kim Lund, Mike McAuley, Kristina Michele Martens and Chris McCoy.

Elsewhere in Whatcom County races, county Executive Satpal Sidhu has five challengers: Misty Flowers, Alicia Rule, Dan Purdy, Barry Buchanan and Sukhwant Gill.

In Ferndale, the mayor’s race is the mirror image of that city’s 2019 election, when challenger Greg Hansen defeated incumbent Mayor Jon Mutchler. This year, Mutchler is challenging Hansen in hopes of regaining the mayor’s post.

Mutchler is a three-term Ferndale City Council member, and he served as the city’s mayor from 2016 to 2019.

The Whatcom County Auditor’s office is calling for a second filing period, for offices that have no candidates. People interested in running for District 3 director of the Mount Baker School Board, along with a number of cemetery, water, park and fire districts, may file during a special three-day period, Wednesday, May 24 to Friday, May 26. The full list of open races is available on the Whatcom County website.

A Skagit County elections official said their office won’t schedule a special filing period for open races until after the primary.

Have a news tip? Email newstips@cascadiadaily.com or Call/Text 360-922-3092



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