Fact check | What the Richland School Board recall will cost and other questions answered

Ever since petitions were filed to remove three Richland School District officials from office, questions have lingered over the cost to district taxpayers.

And other recall election questions and misinformation have floated around on social media.

A group of voters are trying to oust Richland School Board members Semi Bird, Kari Williams and Audra Byrd over their vote last year to defy Washington’s indoor COVID mask mandate, resulting in the closure of schools for two days.

Here’s what we’ve found out on some of the issues:

What does a recall election cost?

The cost depends on which ballot the issue is on.

It costs less to be on a general election or primary ballot where other issues — such as candidates running for public office or bond and levy measures — share in the cost of the election.

Having to call a special election for just one topic costs much more.

Anti-recallers quickly picked up on a number mentioned in a previous recall election for a special election: $250,000.

But in the case of the Richland School Board, the group organizing the recall is confident that they can collect enough signatures in time to put the issue on the Aug. 1 primary ballot.

That price would likely be $75,000-100,000, the Benton County Elections Department estimates.

“If it makes it on the primary ballot, (the recall initiatives) will share the cost with any other districts who have primaries and it is pro-rated to the district based on the number of registered voters,” Amanda Hatfield, the Benton County elections manager, told the Tri-City Herald in an email.

Hatfield says it’s tough to come to a “firm estimate” on the cost before candidates have filed to run for office this year, which starts May 15. The more candidates, the more the cost is shared.

Some districts may not have any races on the ballot if two or fewer candidates file in any given race. If that happens the two won’t face off until the November general election.

If more than two file, the primary election under Washington’s top-two primary system will decide which two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election.

Aren’t some board members up for re-election anyway?

Two Richland school board seats are up for election this fall. They are currently held by Kari Williams and Semi Bird, who are two of the three facing recall.

In addition to any recall election expenses, the Richland School District would also have to pay to put those positions on the ballot if a race has more than two candidates.

People opposed to the recall argue it makes more sense to just let voters choose during the regular course of the election process whether to keep Williams and Bird in office.

Recall supporters say voters should have their say on the current allegations against the three board members, and that voters shouldn’t wait any longer to choose whether or not they should be ousted.

Board Vice Chairwoman Audra Byrd is not up for re-election until 2025. So, she would remain in office until then unless she is recalled.

Williams and Bird have not officially announced if they will seek re-election, though Bird has said he plans to run for governor.

The cost of a regular election varies depending on the number of people who file for the positions.

During the 2019 August primary, the Richland district was billed just under $39,000 to put the names of seven candidates on the ballot for two seats.

The election bill this year is expected to be higher because costs, particularly county employee salaries and services, have risen, Hatfield said.

Can you take office if you’re recalled but then re-elected?

There’s no Washington state laws that bar candidates from taking office if they’re re-elected after also being recalled, said Derrick Nunnally, with the Washington Secretary of State’s Office.

Successful recalls only affect the current officeholder at that time.

That means if the three board members are recalled in Aug. 1, they would have to leave office by Aug. 15 when the election is certified.

If Williams and Bird are also re-elected in November, they could take office again after the election in certified.

Can a name appear twice on the same ballot?

If both Bird and Williams decided to run for their respective seats again, and there are more than two challengers, their names would appear twice on the primary election ballot — if enough recall signatures are gathered for the same ballot.

There doesn’t appear to be any state law barring that from happening in a primary election.

A spokesperson for the state Attorney General’s Office declined to give a legal opinion on the question, but referred to two laws.

State law for the general election says a “candidate’s name shall not appear on a ballot more than once,” though there are exceptions, such as precinct committee officers and temporary elected positions.

Also a law requiring candidates who file for office to appear on a primary with more than two candidates doesn’t mention restrictions.

Benton County Auditor Brenda Chilton, who is the chief local elections official, has previously said it would be allowable in this situation.

How many recall signatures have been collected?

Organizers with the Richland School Board Recall group have not released detailed numbers on their signature gathering efforts.

But lead petitioner Brian Brendel said that they’re “well ahead of the pace necessary” to meet the 180-day deadline after the Washington State Supreme Court said the allegations were sufficient enough to go to voters.

To make it on the August primary, recall signatures must be collected and certified by May 9.

If they miss that deadline, the recall group says the issue could still make the November ballot if they have the signatures verified three months prior to that election or the first week of August.

Washington state law bars any special elections between the primary election in August and the general election in November.

The recall campaign must collect the signatures of 25% of the number of votes cast in the last election for each school board member on a separate petition for each person.

The campaign aims to collect an additional 10% cushion to account for any errors, such as signatures from people who are not registered voters or signatures of people who do not live in the Richland School District.

To meet that 35% threshold, they will need to collect:

  • 5,176 signatures for Kari Williams

  • 5,822 signatures for Misipati “Semi” Bird

  • 5,887 signatures for Audra Byrd