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Local Government Ballot Measures

This page provides a general overview of ballot propositions for local governments in Washington State, including special election dates and deadlines, ballot titles, pro and con committees, voters’ pamphlets, approval requirements, and more.

It is part of MRSC’s series on Local Elections.

Always consult the specific laws applicable to your jurisdiction and ballot measure type, as well the elections administrative rules adopted by your county.


Overview

Local governments may submit a variety of ballot measures, also known as ballot propositions, to voters for their approval. Often these are funding measures such as levy lid lifts, emergency medical services levies, or certain sales and use taxes.

However, ballot measures can also include a variety of non-revenue topics including (but not limited to) changing a city’s classification or form of government, annexing nearby territory, creating or dissolving a special purpose district, or initiatives or referendums proposed directly by voters.


Special Election Dates and Deadlines

To submit a ballot measure to voters, the local legislative body (city council, board of county commissioners, special purpose district governing board, etc.) must submit a resolution to the county auditor calling for a special election. “Special election” is defined in RCW 29A.04.175 and may be held in conjunction with a primary or general election.

State law establishes four potential special election dates each year as well as deadlines for filing the resolution with the county auditor. The election timing is summarized in the table below. (See RCW 29A.04.321(2) for counties and RCW 29A.04.330(2) for cities, towns, and most special purpose districts).

Generally speaking, a local ballot proposition may be submitted at any special election. However, there are occasional exceptions, such as the public safety sales tax (RCW 82.14.450), which may only be submitted at a primary or general election, or general obligation bonds, which may not be submitted to voters more than twice per calendar year (RCW 84.52.056). Always consult the specific statutes for your ballot measure type.

 
Special Election Date Resolution Filing Deadline
Second Tuesday in February Early to mid-December (60 days before election)
Fourth Tuesday in April Late February (60 days before election)
Primary Election (first Tuesday in August) Late April or early May (Friday immediately before first day of regular candidate filing, which is the first Monday in May)
General Election (first Tuesday after first Monday in November) First Tuesday in August (date of primary election)

For a list of upcoming resolution filing deadlines, see your county’s election rules or the Washington Secretary of State’s Elections Calendar.

For each ballot measure, a local government must submit the following information to the county auditor’s office no later than the filing deadline:

  • A signed resolution directing the county auditor to place the item on the ballot and specifying the substantial form of the ballot title (summary) that voters will see on the ballot;
  • An explanatory statement that will appear in the voters’ pamphlet;
  • A list of individuals who will serve on the “pro” and “con” committees to prepare arguments for and against the measure for use in the voters' pamphlet; and
  • Any other forms or information prescribed by your county auditor’s office, such as a completed cover sheet.

Local governments must allow sufficient time to prepare these materials prior to the filing deadline. The ballot title, explanatory statement, and pro/con committees are discussed in more detail below.

Practice Tip: If a ballot measure fails, jurisdictions will sometimes try again at a later election where differences in turnout, outreach, media coverage, or other local factors might change the outcome. However, timing can be tricky – particularly for jurisdictions submitting a ballot measure at a primary election.

The general election filing deadline is the date of the primary election, meaning the outcome of the primary election will not be known in time to place an item on the general election ballot. In these cases, some jurisdictions submit two resolutions to the county auditor – one for the primary election and a “backup” resolution for the general election (subject to any county election rules). Make sure to consult with your county elections office before pursuing this strategy.

For example, see:

  • Central Pierce Fire & Rescue Resolution Nos. 22-01 and 22-03 (2022) – Two nearly identical resolutions submitting emergency medical services (EMS) levy to voters at both the primary and general election. General election resolution includes automatic repealer if ballot measure passes in primary.

Election Timing Considerations

Local governments must weigh a number of different factors when deciding when to submit a ballot proposition to voters. These factors include:

Timing of Revenues

For taxes and other revenue measures, a jurisdiction must consider when it wants to begin receiving the funds. For instance, sales tax changes only take effect three times per year and no sooner than 75 days after the Department of Revenue receives notice of the change (RCW 82.14.055). Similarly, property tax levies are certified to the county assessor once per year and any changes take effect the following year (RCW 84.52.070).

Voter Turnout

Generally speaking, voter turnout is highest during general elections and especially presidential and gubernatorial elections. The composition of the local electorate may also vary depending on turnout, which can affect whether a measure passes or fails, so it can be helpful to understand turnout patterns over time within your jurisdiction.

Voter turnout is especially important for any proposition requiring validation (minimum voter turnout). For instance, it may be difficult to pass a bond measure in a low-turnout February or April special election following a presidential/gubernatorial election. By comparison, it may be easier to pass a measure requiring validation by submitting it at the same time as a high-turnout primary or general election.

For more information on validation, see the section below on Determining the Outcome.

Election Costs and Other Items on the Ballot

Counties pass election costs along to participating jurisdictions based on the number of participating jurisdictions, the number of voters in each participating jurisdiction, and the number of races or ballot measures each participating jurisdiction has on the ballot.

If your jurisdiction already has other ballot measures or candidates on the ballot — such as commissioner or city council races — then the additional costs for a ballot measure should be minimal. However, if your jurisdiction does not have other measures or candidates already on the ballot and would not otherwise be conducting an election, the election costs will be significantly higher.

The costs to each participating jurisdiction will also be lower if there are many other agencies to split the costs and highest if there are no other agencies on the ballot. At the same time, some agencies prefer not to submit tax measures at the same election as other overlapping jurisdictions, such as school districts, thinking that voters may be more likely to reject the measure if there are too many taxes on the same ballot.

Contact your county auditor to get cost estimates, and ask other jurisdictions in your county whether they are planning any ballot measures. For more information on election costs generally, see our page on Local Election Administration.

For an example of an election cost analysis, see:

  • Port Angeles Resolution No. 14-19 (2019) — Submitting housing & related services sales tax to voters. It includes memo with analysis of election timing and costs, concluding it would cost $7,000-$12,000 to submit the measure at the 2019 general election but up to $70,000 to submit the measure at the February or April 2020 special election.

Voters’ Pamphlet

Prior to each election, the county auditor’s office must produce and distribute a local voters’ pamphlet (RCW 29A.32.210). For any ballot measure, the voters’ pamphlet must include, at a minimum:

  • The text of each measure (ballot title),
  • An explanatory statement, and
  • Arguments for and against the measure prepared by the pro and con committees.

See RCW 29A.32.241. These elements are discussed in more detail below.

If inclusion in the voters’ pamphlet would create undue financial hardship for a local government, the agency’s legislative body (city council, board of commissioners, etc.) may petition the county legislative body (board of county commissioners or county council) to be excluded from the pamphlet (RCW 29A.32.220). Even if a waiver is granted, the local government will still bear responsibility for its share of the remaining election costs.


Ballot Title

The full resolution submitted to the county auditor will not appear on the ballot itself. Instead, voters will see a summary of the measure known as the “ballot title.”

RCW 29A.36.071 provides the general requirements for the ballot title, which also must be displayed substantially as provided in RCW 29A.72.050 (the ballot title requirements for statewide initiatives and referendums) except as otherwise noted in RCW 29A.36.071.

When examining the two statutes together, a ballot title must consist of the following elements:

  • An identification of the enacting legislative body.
  • A statement of the subject matter, not to exceed 10 words, which must be “sufficiently broad to reflect the subject of the measure [and] sufficiently precise to give notice of the measure’s subject matter.”
  • A concise description of the measure, not to exceed 75 words in most instances. The concise description must be drafted by the city or town attorney or – for counties and special purpose districts – the county prosecuting attorney. If a special purpose district spans multiple counties, the concise description must be drafted by the prosecuting attorney of the county within which the majority of the district is located.
  • A question.

See below for a conceptual example of these ballot title elements.

Sample ballot measure text showing the components required by state law. The text begins with the identification of the enacting body: “The City Council of [City Name] adopted [Resolution Number]”, which is followed by the word “concerning”. Then comes the statement of subject matter, not to exceed 10 words: “a sales and use tax to fund transportation improvements.” The next sentence begins “This proposition would” followed by the concise description drafted by the city/town attorney or county prosecuting attorney, not to exceed 75 words in most instances: “authorize a sales and use tax of 0.2%25 (two cents per $10 sale) to be collected from all taxable retail sales within the City in accordance with RCW 82.14.0455 for a term of ten years, beginning not earlier than January 1, [year] and ending not later than December 31, [year], for the purpose of providing financing to fund improvement projects identified in the City of [City Name] Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).” The ballot measure concludes with a question: “Should this proposition be approved? Yes/No” This is intended as a conceptual example only. Other phrasing and formatting may be allowable; some types of ballot measures have different or additional requirements in state law. Always consult the specific statutes for your agency type and ballot measure type.

Upon filing of the ballot title, the county auditor must provide notice of the exact language of the ballot title to the jurisdiction or people proposing the measure, or any other person requesting a copy (RCW 29A.36.080). If any persons are dissatisfied with the ballot title, RCW 29A.36.090 provides appeal procedures. Also see RCW 35A.29.120-.130 regarding ballot titles in code cities.

Exceptions

Some statutes contain different ballot title requirements, in which case RCW 29A.36.071(1) may not apply (see RCW 29A.36.071(3)). For example:

  • Emergency medical service (EMS) levies and certain park levies must contain in substance the language in RCW 29A.36.210.
  • Fire protection districts have specific ballot wording requirements for establishing fire benefit charges (RCW 52.18.050), annexing cities or towns (RCW 52.04.071), and changing the number of commissioners (RCW 52.14.015-.017).
  • The proposed formation of a metropolitan park district must include specific “for/against” language (RCW 35.61.030).

In addition, it is likely permissible to exceed the statutory word limits if doing so is necessary to comply with other statutes. However, if you must exceed the word limits you should strive to use the minimum number of additional words that are truly necessary. See AGLO 1975 No. 12, which is based on older statutes but contains logic that should still apply.

Practice Tip: Always consult the specific statutes for your agency type and ballot measure type, and proofread the ballot title and resolution carefully. If the ballot measure includes tax rates, be sure that the numbers and decimal points are correct. For instance, make sure the text says $0.50 or 50 cents per $1,000 assessed value, and not 0.50 cents (which would be a half-cent).


Explanatory Statement

An explanatory statement must be prepared by the jurisdiction’s attorney and will appear in the voters’ pamphlet. The explanatory statement should describe, in neutral terms, what the ballot measure would do and what its impacts would be. The word limits and any other requirements are determined by each county’s election rules (RCW 29A.32.230).

There is limited statutory guidance about these statements. RCW 29A.32.210 states that the format of the local voters’ pamphlet must, whenever applicable, comply with the provisions of chapter 29A.32 RCW regarding the publication of the state voters’ pamphlets. RCW 29A.32.040 provides requirements for explanatory statements for statewide ballot measures, including that they must be written in clear and concise language and avoid legal and technical terms when possible.

The explanatory statement should not advocate for or against the ballot measure; those statements for and against will be prepared separately by the pro and con committees.

If the explanatory statement has not been approved by the jurisdiction’s attorney, it must be reviewed and approved by the county prosecuting attorney before inclusion in the voters’ pamphlet.


Pro and Con Committees

For each ballot measure that will appear in the voters’ pamphlet, RCW 29A.32.280 requires the legislative body (city/town council, board of commissioners, etc.) to formally appoint two committees no later than the resolution filing deadline:

  • A “pro” committee of no more than three people to prepare arguments advocating for the measure’s approval. This committee must consist of people known to favor the measure.
  • A “con” committee of no more than three people to prepare arguments against the measure. Whenever possible, this committee must consist of people known to oppose the measure.

These committees may seek the advice of others. The committees may include agency elected officials or staff members, but the staff/officials must keep their campaign activities completely separate from their public duties and may not use public facilities to support or oppose the ballot measure. For more information, see our page on Use of Public Facilities in Election Campaigns.

If the local legislative body fails to make the appointments by the deadline, the county auditor must make the appointments whenever possible.

The statements submitted by the pro and con committees will appear in the local voters’ pamphlet. Some counties allow each committee to read the opposing committee’s submitted statement and provide a short rebuttal statement that will also appear in the voters’ pamphlet. The word limits, deadlines, use of rebuttal statements, and any other requirements are determined by each county’s election rules (RCW 29A.32.230).

Practice Tip: Sometimes jurisdictions will seek volunteers for the pro/con committees through announcements on the agency website, newsletter, or local news media. For example, see:

PDC Filings

If the pro and con committees exist solely to prepare arguments for and against the ballot measure, they are not required to register with or report to the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).

However, if a committee expects to receive contributions or make expenditures in support of or opposition to any candidate or ballot measure, the committee must generally file with the PDC. A political committee might be exempt from reporting if its sole purpose is to support or oppose a local ballot measure in a jurisdiction that had fewer than 2,000 registered voters as of the last general election. There is also a process for a “petition for disclosure” in regard to these exempt committees (See RCW 42.17A.135 and WAC 390-05-300 - .305).

For more information, see the PDC's Political Committee FAQ and Committee Registration pages.


Advisory Votes

Occasionally a city or county will submit an advisory ballot measure to voters to gauge popular sentiment on a particular issue, such as whether to ban consumer fireworks or whether to allow cannabis-related businesses within the jurisdiction’s boundaries.

Unlike the powers of initiative and referendum, there is no specific state law authorizing advisory votes, and such votes are not legally binding. However, cities and counties likely have the authority to put an advisory vote on the ballot (see AGLO 1976 No. 60), and legislative bodies typically abide by the results.

Any advisory ballot measures should be limited to subject matters within the jurisdiction’s authority and that have a valid public purpose. Below are selected examples:


Prohibited Campaign Activities

Local governments must be careful not to violate state laws prohibiting the use of public funds for election campaigns. For instance, a jurisdiction can send out a mailer with an objective and neutral presentation of the facts — such as a fair and objective description of how government services will be impacted if the ballot measure passes or fails — but it cannot send out a mailer telling residents to “Vote Yes!”

For more information, see Use of Public Facilities in Election Campaigns.


Determining the Outcome

The final election results are certified by the county canvassing board 10 days after a February or April special election, 14 days after a primary election, and 21 days after a general election (RCW 29A.60.190).

Most ballot measures — including sales taxes, levy lid lifts, and non-revenue measures — require a simple majority vote (50% plus one) for passage, with no minimum voter turnout. However, some property taxes and benefit charges require a 60% supermajority, and bonds and some other measures also require “validation” — a certain minimum voter turnout compared to the previous general election — as discussed in the next section.

Important: It is the responsibility of the jurisdiction submitting the ballot measure — not the county auditor — to identify the approval requirements and determine whether or not the measure passed. After the election, the county auditor’s office certifies the number of votes cast for and against each measure but does not determine whether it passed or failed. See WAC 434-262-017 and the Secretary of State’s Clearinghouse Elections Notice Issue #19-01.

Unlike statewide ballot measures and races for local or state elected office, there are no automatic recounts for local ballot measures under chapter 29A.64 RCW if the election is very close. However, any group of five or more registered voters can request a recount regarding a local ballot measure within two business days after the county canvassing board or secretary of state has declared the results to be official (RCW 29A.64.011). The voters requesting the recount must pay for the full costs of the recount, including a security deposit, unless the recount changes the result of the election (see RCW 29A.64.030 and RCW 29A.64.081).


Validation and Voter Turnout Requirements

There is no single statute addressing approval and validation (voter turnout) requirements, so always consult the specific laws for your agency type and ballot measure type. Examples of ballot propositions requiring validation and/or a supermajority include, but are not necessarily limited to, the following:

Ballot Measure Type Approval Requirements Citation
General obligation bonds 60% plus validation* Washington State Constitution Article VII, Section 2(b); also see RCW 84.52.056
Excess operations and maintenance (O&M) levy 60% plus validation* except for schools, which only require a simple majority Washington State Constitution Article VII, Section 2(a)

Also see RCW 84.52.052 (most local governments) and RCW 84.52.130 (fire protection districts)
Emergency medical services (EMS) levy Initial imposition: 60% plus validation*

Renewal of existing levy: Simple majority, no validation
RCW 84.52.069
Park and recreation district levy 60% plus validation* RCW 36.69.145
Park and recreation service area levy 60% plus validation* RCW 36.68.525
Fire benefit charges Initial imposition: 60% but no validation

Renewal of existing charges: Simple majority, no validation
RCW 52.18.050 for fire protection districts

RCW 52.26.220 for regional fire authorities
Creation of new public hospital district Simple majority plus validation RCW 70.44.040
De-annexation of non-agricultural lands (reduction of city limits) 60% but no validation RCW 35A.16.030 (code cities); RCW 35.16.030 (all other cities and towns)
* Bonds and levies have different validation requirements as discussed below.

Following each general election, the county auditor determines the number of voters participating in the election for each taxing district and provides that number to each district to assist the districts in calculating their own validation requirements for the ensuing year.

For ballot measures requiring validation, election timing is especially important as it can influence both the number of voters casting ballots as well as the required validation thresholds. For more information, see the earlier section on Election Timing Considerations.

Validation Requirements for 60% Voted Property Taxes (Except Bonds)

Property tax measures that require validation — other than bonds — must meet one of the following requirements:

  • 40% minimum turnout: In addition to receiving at least a 60% “yes” vote, the number of voters voting on the proposition must be at least 40% of the number of voters who cast ballots in the taxing district in the most recent general election.
  • Minimum number of “yes” votes: Alternatively, if turnout is below 40% compared to the most recent general election, the measure can still pass if the number of “yes” votes is at least 60% of 40% (or, in plain English, 24%) of the number of votes cast in the most recent general election. For instance, if 1,000 people voted in the most recent general election but only 320 voted in the current election (a relative turnout rate of 32%), the proposition could still pass as long as it received 240 “yes” votes (24% of 1,000), which in this example would equate to a 75% “yes” vote (240 votes for and 80 votes against).

Validation Requirements for Bond Measures

The validation requirements for voted bond measures are stricter than for levies. Every voted bond measure requires a 60% supermajority and minimum turnout of 40% compared to the most recent general election. If turnout is below the 40% threshold, the bond measure will fail no matter how many “yes” votes it receives.

For more information on the validation requirements for specific measures, as well as detailed examples of validation calculations for bonds and property tax measures, see MRSC’s City Revenue Guide and County Revenue Guide.


Examples of Ballot Resolutions

We have a number of examples of local ballot measure resolutions and related materials on our website. Since the statutory requirements vary, we recommend you search for your specific type of ballot measure (for example: levy lid lifts, public safety sales tax, or changing form of government) or RCW section.


Ballot Measure Results 2011-Present

MRSC’s Local Ballot Measure Database has been tracking the results of local government ballot measures across Washington State since November 2011. You can use the database to research how other similar ballot measures have performed — including filtering by statutory authority, jurisdiction type, subject matter, and county. We update the database after every election once the results have been certified.


Recommended Resources

For additional resources related to local government ballot measures, see:


Last Modified: March 06, 2024