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Supporting/Opposing Ballot Measures and Candidates


August 23, 2018 by Paul Sullivan
Category: Elections

Supporting/Opposing Ballot Measures and Candidates

Election season will soon be upon us and, during this season, some local governments may wonder if they can support or oppose ballot issues? Or allow a candidate to use a meeting public comment period to speak on behalf of his or her candidacy? Or have a local official write a letter supporting a particular candidate? What can be done and what can’t?

One statute that affects the answer to all of these questions, as well as many others, is RCW 42.17A.555, which provides, in part:

No elective official nor any employee of his or her office nor any person appointed to or employed by any public office or agency may use or authorize the use of any of the facilities of a public office or agency, directly or indirectly, for the purpose of assisting a campaign for election of any person to any office or for the promotion of or opposition to any ballot proposition.

This blog addresses questions local government often have when it comes to supporting or opposing ballot measures and/or candidates for public office. For more election-related topics, read my recent post, Answers to Common Election Season Questions.

Common Questions Regarding Candidates

May a commissioner/councilmember write a letter in support of a candidate for office? 

Yes, he or she may.  However, government office equipment, stamps, letterhead, or staff time may not be used to prepare the letter. 

May the commissioner/councilmember use his/her title when signing a letter in support of a candidate?

Yes, but the letter should make it clear that it is the elected official's personal opinion and not made on behalf of the governing body he/she sits on. 

May a government employee or appointed officer write a letter or sign an endorsement for a candidate? 

Yes. An employee may participate in political activity to the same extent as any citizen.  Of course, he or she may not use government assets or services in preparing or distributing the letter, and he or she should make it clear that the offering is personal, instead of being done on behalf of the employing government.

May a candidate for office use a public comment period to discuss his or her candidacy? 

This is a difficult issue as it involves both the limits on the political use of government facilities and a citizen’s freedom of speech rights. Nevertheless, the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) takes the position that RCW 42.17A.555 applies and the meeting’s chair should stop the person from using the comment period to discuss his or her campaign. 

May a local government hold a “candidates’ night” in a council or commissioners chambers? 

Such a forum would be alright if it's a “neutral forum” where all the candidates are allowed to participate and the public agency is not actively offering endorsement or support to any one candidate.

May a brochure or advertisement show a uniformed officer in his or her official uniform? 

Here are the circumstances under which this is allowable:

  • the uniform is owned or rented by the officer
  • the uniform is no longer used by the agency and has been “retired”
  • the photo was made in the ordinary course of business and not staged for campaign purposes

Common Questions Regarding Ballot Measures

May a commissioner/councilmember write a letter in support of a ballot measure? 

Following the advice given above, the commissioner/councilmember should not use government office equipment, stamps, letterhead, or staff time to prepare such a letter. Additionally, a local official may make a statement in support of or in opposition to a ballot proposition at an open press conference or in response to a specific inquiry if it is clear the support is not made on behalf of the local government he/she represents.

May a local government allow candidates, ballot sponsors, or ballot opponents to place campaign materials in a government building? 

Probably, as long as there is a policy setting aside an area where election campaign brochures and related materials are made available to the public. Additionally, all candidates (or competing sides of a ballot issue) must be allowed to place their literature at that location and the agency should not provide an advantage to any particular candidate or position. The practice, if routinely allowed, could be considered “normal and regular conduct,” a recognized exception to RCW 42.17A.555.

May a local government prepare a fact sheet on a ballot issue going before the voters? 

Yes, it may prepare such a sheet as long as it is an objective and fair presentation of the facts of the ballot measure. Other information may be provided, for example through a newsletter or website, if the information provided is fair and objective and if the means the local government uses to share the information is a normal, regular, customary means of providing information.

Okay, so government officials and employees may not use government equipment, stamps, phones, or staff time to support or oppose ballot issues: Does this mean the legislative body itself cannot itself support an upcoming ballot issue, such as a tax levy for local schools? No, it does not. RCW 42.17A.555 allows a legislative body to express support or opposition if its meeting notice includes the title and number of the ballot proposition, and if those who have an opposing view are afforded an approximately equal opportunity to express an opinion. 

Additional Resources

The Public Disclosure Commission, which enforces campaign laws, is an excellent resource because it wants to help local governments and officials operate within the constraints of these laws. If you question whether an information brochure is objective and fair, contact the PDC. If you’re unsure of whether the proposed use of a facility or government asset is normal, the PDC can provide answers. 

The key is to contact the PDC before undertaking a particular action. Of course, if there is an issue, contact your city or town attorney, county prosecutor, or district legal counsel. And, as always, you can contact MRSC: We’re here to help.

Questions? Comments?

If you have questions about this or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have comments about this blog post, please comment below or email Paul Sullivan at psullivan@mrsc.org.

About Paul Sullivan

Paul has worked with local governments since 1974 and has authored MRSC publications on local elections, ordinances, and general local government operation. He also provides training on the Open Public Meetings Act.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Paul Sullivan

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