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Handling Unexpected Elections Issues


October 28, 2021  by  MRSC Insight
Category:  Elections

Handling Unexpected Elections Issues

Historically, elections are settled affairs. The votes are tallied in a systematic way and the candidate who gets the most votes wins. But sometimes unexpected and unusual situations can arise during the election process, causing confusion and disarray.

This blog reviews some of those unusual occurrences that can arise in and after elections, and what should be done in response.

An Election that Ends in a Tie

Candidates for office hope for a “landslide” in their election results. Usually though, the winner and their opponent will only be separated by a few votes or percentage points. What if there is a tie?

State law takes care of that possibility. If two or more candidates are tied when the vote counts and recounts are complete, the winner is determined “by lot” per RCW 29A.60.221. Determining a winner “by lot” means that the tied election is decided by flipping  a coin, drawing straws, rolling dice, or picking a name from a hat — all possible ways to make a decision by lot.

Challenges Involving Candidates

What if the winner of the primary election dies prior to the general election? Will their votes be counted?

According to AGO 1999 No. 5, a deceased candidate’s name remains on the ballot and the votes cast for them are counted. In the event the deceased candidate receives the most votes, a vacancy is declared for the position and the vacancy is filled according to the process applicable to that office. The answer is the same in the event a candidate withdraws from the race; if the candidate who withdrew wins the most votes, then a vacancy occurs and must be filled accordingly. The runner-up candidate to the person who died or withdrew is not declared the winner. 

What if, after the primary election, a candidate moves from the jurisdiction and is no longer qualified to hold the office being sought?

To qualify for local elective office, a candidate must be a registered voter of the municipality and maintain a residence in the precinct where they are registered (see RCW 42.12.010 and RCW 29A.08.010).

Sometimes a candidate will move from the jurisdiction and no longer qualify for the office they are seeking. However, their name remains on the ballot and the person continues to seek election. What can be done?

Any judge, other than a district or municipal court judge, is authorized to correct an election error, prevent a “wrongful act” with respect to an election, or require the performance of an election-related duty, if an affidavit is filed by an elector (see RCW 29A.68.011).

Additionally, a registered voter may contest the right of any person to be issued a certificate of election if the candidate was ineligible for the office at the time of election. The voter must file an affidavit with the appropriate court (i.e., any court except a municipal or district court) and a hearing must be set on the matter. After receiving testimony and evidence at the hearing, the presiding judge may either dismiss the proceedings, nullify the election, or, if another person has the most legal votes, declare that person to be elected (see RCW 29A.68.050).

What if a person, unqualified for office, nevertheless assumes office and votes on issues, sometimes even casting the deciding vote?

The votes taken by an “officeholder” who is later found unqualified for office are considered valid. Under the de facto officer doctrine, one who has the reputation and appearance of being an officer but has no legal right to the office nevertheless serves as a “de facto officer” and their votes are considered valid.

What if voters write in Bugs Bunny and Bugs receives the most votes?

For write-in votes to be counted, the person (or bunny) whose name is written in must have declared his or her candidacy and paid the required filing fees by no later than 8:00 P.M. on the day of the primary or the election (see RCW 29A.24.311). Assuming Bugs (or a person) has not declared and paid a filing fee, they would have no votes counted and thus winning the office would be impossible (sorry, Bugs).

Post-Election Governance Issues

What if a jurisdiction’s newly elected officers are not sworn in until January 15 but some issues must be decided before then, and without the new officers, there is no quorum?

While a person elected to office will typically serve for a term of four years, it is possible that they might end up serving for a longer period. For example, code city mayors and councilmembers have four-year terms and, according to RCW 35A.12.040, serve “until their successors are elected and qualified and assume office.”

Under such statutes, if a newly elected person cannot take office at the beginning of a new term, their predecessor “holds over” in the position until the new officer can provide a bond and be sworn in.

Want to read more about local government election-related issues? We have numerous blogs providing a deeper dive on various issues, including:


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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MRSC Insight reflects the best writing of MRSC staff on timeless topics that impact staff and elected officials in Washington cities, counties, and special purpose districts.

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