He cast doubt on the 2020 election, now he wants a lead job tallying votes

Former state lawmaker Robert Sutherland is running for auditor in one of the state’s biggest counties. Washington’s top election official says it’ll be “a disaster” if he wins.

By: - May 9, 2023 5:00 am
Robert Sutherland, a candidate for Snohomish County Auditor, is pictured speaking at a gun rights rally in Seattle in 2018.

Robert Sutherland, pictured at a 2018 gun rights rally in Seattle, is running for Snohomish County Auditor. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

A former state lawmaker who has fanned false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election is vying for the job that oversees elections in Washington’s third most populous county.

Republican Robert Sutherland is running for Snohomish County auditor in a contest expected to train a spotlight on the integrity of ballot counting and other election conduct locally and across the state.

“The fact of the matter is that millions of voters across the nation, and many here in Snohomish County, rightly or wrongly believe that there were very significant irregularities in the 2020 presidential election, casting doubt on the results,” he said in an email. “As Auditor, I will be uniquely positioned to regain their trust in our election processes. There must be greater transparency for this to happen.”

Sutherland will be up against Auditor Garth Fell and Cindy Gobel, the candidate Fell defeated for the job in 2019. They are both veteran election professionals and reject theories spun by former President Donald Trump and embraced by Sutherland that election-related mischief robbed Trump of a second term. 

They both also anticipate the degree to which voters’ trust in how votes are tallied will be a central issue in the Aug. 1 primary. The top-two finishers will meet in the November general election.

“What I’ve heard from voters in our county is they trust and have confidence in the conduct of elections in Snohomish County,” Fell said. “I am comfortable putting my record and experience in front of voters.”

Sutherland’s entry will elevate interest in the race and, Gobel hopes, broaden public understanding of how elections are run. Gobel formerly worked in the elections divisions of  Snohomish County auditor and, later, the Secretary of State.

“It is hard to hear the election denier rhetoric and continued discussion of fraud,” she said. “It detracts from the excellent service our election workers are providing. And it’s completely unfounded. I think it’s time to let that go.”

The county auditor’s job is a nonpartisan position. It is one of roughly 3,350 seats on city and county councils, school boards, and special district commissions on ballots in Washington this year. Sutherland, a conservative firebrand from Granite Falls, is undertaking this political pursuit months after his bid for a third term in the state House of Representatives ended with a loss to a moderate Republican, Sam Low of Lake Stevens.

Following the 2020 presidential election, Sutherland emerged among a handful of GOP lawmakers crying foul at the results, calling for a forensic audit of the state’s vote tally and cheering on legal challenges to the outcome.

In the 2021 session, he co-sponsored bills to end voting by mail and require only paper ballots with special watermarks be counted. Neither received a hearing in the Democrat-controlled House.

That summer Sutherland joined other lawmakers at a “cyber symposium” in South Dakota organized by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who has claimed millions of votes got flipped by counting machine computer algorithms or hackers.

And in August 2021, Sutherland helped organize an event at a Snohomish church at which people testified about fraud and irregularities they say they saw or experienced. He later emailed some attendees with a direct pitch seeking lawsuit participants.

Several weeks later, lawsuits were brought against eight counties, including Snohomish County, contesting the accuracy of vote-counting machines. Courts later tossed those suits.

If elected, Sutherland said he intends to increase transparency “so the public can see, and have greater faith in, how the process works. They should be able to verify the results themselves, not simply rely on what they are told by government officials.”

To that end he wants cast vote records made publicly available “so that anyone can perform their own recount.” 

These records are not available to the public because they contain data which could be used to identify a voter and the votes they cast, Fell said. A soon-to-be signed new state law will ban their release. 

Sutherland also wants signatures on ballot envelopes made available to the public and voter rolls scrubbed of individuals who are not legally allowed to vote.

Fell said ballot envelopes can be inspected in person but copies are not provided. And, he said, voter rolls are regularly reviewed against various sources and updated.

Sutherland, meanwhile, said Fell should recuse himself from overseeing the election.

“Win or lose I will either perform or call for a comprehensive audit of the 2023 Snohomish County Auditor’s race,” Sutherland said, to make sure there was no wrongdoing.

Fell, who has spent 24 years in elections, including 15 in Snohomish County, said he won’t be on the canvassing board that will review results and resolve any issues with ballots in this election cycle. He already has had his access to election materials limited, he added.

The incumbent sought to rebut doubts sown by the challenger.

Over the last four years, the county has strengthened its election auditing practices, increased education and outreach to voters, worked with legislators to improve the safety of voting facilities, and secured funding for facility enhancements intended to bolster security of ballots ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

The leader of the Snohomish County Republican Party said Sutherland’s experience as a biochemist and state lawmaker are “a pretty good fit for the voters.”

“It’s going to be a tough choice for the voters,” said Bob Hagglund, the GOP party chair. “He’s quite the activist and he’s going to focus on transparency.”

Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, a Democrat and Lake Stevens resident, said it should be an easy decision.

“Robert Sutherland would be a disaster,” he said. “He would take whatever misinformation is out there and run with it.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jerry Cornfield
Jerry Cornfield

Jerry Cornfield joined the Standard after 20 years covering Olympia statehouse news for The Everett Herald. Earlier in his career, he worked for daily and weekly papers in Santa Barbara, California.