Local Elections Administration
This page offers an overview of local government elections administration and the elections process for Washington State.
It is part of MRSC's series on Local Elections.
New legislation: The 2023 state legislature adopted several elections-related bills, including:
- SB 5208 regarding online voter registration
- SB 5112 regarding automatic voter registration
- SB 5153 regarding the records of future voters and their participation in state primaries
For more information, see our blog post New Election Laws Passed in 2023.
Local government elections, like state elections, are governed by the provisions of Title 29A RCW. The Office of the Washington Secretary of State (SOS) has general authority over the conduct of elections, and its Elections & Voting webpages provide useful and comprehensive information on the topics.
RCW 29A.04.216 requires every county to have a county auditor, whose main functions are to supervise elections and voter registration, record and oversee permanent county records, license vehicles and vessels, and provide financial services to the county. There are some variations in small counties and charter counties. For example, King County has eliminated the office of auditor and replaced it with several appointed officials and one elected director of elections. The SOS maintains a list of all county elections departments in the state.
Under RCW 29A.40.010, all 39 counties have used mail-in voting since 2011.
Title 29A RCW offers comprehensive provisions required for local government elections in the state. This includes the following sample:
- RCW 29A.40.091 — Requires the county auditor to prominently display the date of the election in at least size 20 font on the envelope that contains voter ballots or other election materials.
- RCW 29A.08.170 — Allows teenagers 16- or 17-years-old to sign up to register to vote in advance of their 18th birthday.
- RCW 29A.40.091(4) — Allows voters who are service members or living overseas to return their completed ballots via fax or email.
- RCW 29A.08.112 — Provides an alternative to registering to vote with a “traditional residential address,” as an identifiable location that the voter deems to be their residence.
- RCW 29A.08.520 — Restores voter eligibility to those persons with felony convictions who are not incarcerated or who are released from total confinement in prison.
Additional legal authority:
- Ch 42.17A RCW — Addresses campaign disclosure and contributions to campaigns.
- Title 390 WAC — Establishes the Public Disclosure Commission (PCD).
Primary and general elections are used to select officeholders.
The general election is held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November. For cities and towns, the general election is held in even-numbered years; For counties (except certain charter counties), it is in odd-numbered years. For special purpose districts (SPDs), general elections are held in odd-numbered years, except:
- Public utility districts, conservation districts, or district elections at which the ownership of property within those districts is a prerequisite to voting. These elections are held at the times prescribed in the laws specifically relating to those districts. Property ownership requirements as a prerequisite to voting include diking districts; drainage districts; diking, drainage, and/or sewerage improvement districts; intercounty diking and drainage districts; consolidated diking districts, drainage districts, diking improvement districts, and/or drainage improvement districts; and flood control districts (See RCW 85.38.010 for definition of elector).
- Special flood control districts consisting of three or more counties.
Other exceptions to the November general election date are recall, consolidation, non-high school district capital fund proposals provided in chapter 28A.540 RCW, and special elections.
A special election is any that is not a general election, although it may be held in conjunction with a general or primary election (RCW 29A.04.175). The governing body of the district wishing to hold a special election (city council, board of county commissioners, special purpose district board, etc.) must present a resolution requesting a special election to the county auditor.
A special election may be held on one of the following dates: the second Tuesday in February; the fourth Tuesday in April; the day of the primary election as specified by RCW 29A.04.311; or the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November (see RCW 29A.04.330).
To vote in Washington, one must be a citizen of the United States, a resident of Washington for 30 days or more, and at least 18 years of age. Washington’s statewide database of active voter registrations, known as VoteWA, is maintained by the SOS.
Beginning in 2019 the Washington State Department of Licensing automatically registers any Washingtonian applying for or updating an enhanced driver’s license. Eligible persons may also register online up to eight days before the election at VoteWA. In-person registration is allowed until 8:00 p.m. on the day of the election at designated voting centers (see RCW 29A.08.140).
Challenges may be made to individual voter registrations. A challenge to a person's right to vote must be based on personal knowledge of the person’s citizenship, age, residential address, status as a felon ineligible to vote, or a court order of ineligibility to vote due to mental incompetency. The burden of proof lies with the challenger and evidence must be presented to the county canvassing board for review. Forms can be obtained through the SOS or county auditors. This process is governed by RCW 29A.08.810 - RCW 29A.08.850.
At least once a month the SOS must compare the list of registered voters to a list of persons not eligible to vote due to serving a sentence of total confinement under the jurisdiction of the Washington State Department of Corrections.
Washington State has a mail-in voting system where registered voters receive a ballot in advance of election day (RCW 29A.40.010).
A voter may return their ballot through the mail, by depositing it in a ballot box, or by bringing it into a voting center. RCW 29A.40.091 requires that return envelopes for ballots include prepaid postage, with the cost of such postage shared amongst all jurisdictions participating in each election.
RCW 29A.40.170 requires county auditors to establish a minimum of one ballot drop box per 15,000 registered voters in the county and a minimum of one ballot drop box in each city, town, and census-designated place in the county with a post office. In addition, any county auditor, upon request from a federally recognized Indian tribe with a reservation in that county, “must establish at least one ballot drop box on the Indian reservation on a site selected by the tribe that is accessible to the county auditor by a public road.”
Although there are no longer individual polling places, each county must offer at least one voting center to offer voter assistance and to allow in-person registration and voting. Per RCW 29A.40.160(5), these voting centers must be accessible to persons with disabilities.
RCW 29A.40.180 directs the state’s public universities and colleges to open campus-based, non-partisan student engagement hubs that offer voting services, including voter registration. These hubs are directed to be open during business hours for eight days before and through 8:00 PM on the night of the general election.
RCW 29A.84.610 makes it unlawful to knowingly misrepresent an unofficial ballot collection site or device as an official ballot drop box.
RCW 29A.84.510 prohibits campaigning, signature collection, or any activity that impedes with the voting process, including individuals ‘observing’ the process near ballot drop boxes or voting centers. WAC 434-250-100(6) offers this clarification:
Within twenty-five feet of a ballot deposit site that is not located within a voting center, no person may electioneer, circulate campaign material, solicit petition signatures, or interfere with or impede the voting process. Whenever it is necessary to maintain order around a ballot deposit site, the county auditor may contact a law enforcement agency for assistance.
County auditors are required to produce a local voters’ pamphlet before each primary, general, and special election (RCW 29A.32.210). The pamphlet must provide information on all measures and candidates within that jurisdiction.
Certain Washington counties must make election information and ballots available in languages in addition to English, including:
- Counties with a language minority population of 10,000 or more; and/or
- Counties in which 5% or more persons residing within the jurisdiction can be described as coming from a language minority group (i.e., proficient in a language other than English).
Visit our Language Access page for more information on language access requirements and resources available to local governments.
As completed ballots are received by the counties, they are processed or canvassed. The processing of each ballot includes checking the signatures placed on the voters’ declaration and comparing with each voter’s signature on file. When there is not an apparent match, or the voter forgot to sign the declaration, contact is attempted with the voter by mail to the same address that the original ballot was delivered.
If a voter attempts to return more than one ballot, the system warns the election official that a ballot has already been returned for that voter. Election workers report that information to the canvassing board, that in turn reports it to the county prosecuting attorney if further investigation is warranted.
A record of returned ballots that have declarations with missing or mismatched signatures is updated each day that a county canvasses ballots. All contacts, by phone or mail, and each voter submission of updated information is also recorded.
Ballots are verified and scanned throughout the 18-day voting period as they are processed and accepted. Ballot scanners are not connected to the Internet or other public networks. No votes are counted until the end of the election after 8:00 p.m. on Election Day.
After 8:00 p.m. on Election Day, the county election division begins to tally votes, and preliminary election results are made public. As additional ballots are lawfully received — including all ballots postmarked by Election Day — further results are counted and made available. 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).
Once the vote count is complete, the county auditor prepares an abstract showing the votes cast for each candidate (RCW 29a.60.230). The auditor will also prepare and issue a ceremonial certificate of election to the winner (RCW 29A.52.360).
Election security measures include audits, random checks, ballot-polling risk-limiting audits, and independent electronic audits of ballot counting equipment.
Throughout the election, ballot scanners and voting systems are physically secured in locked rooms. Elections staff sign in and out each time the room is opened and always in groups of two or more.
The record of returned ballots that have declarations with missing or mismatched signatures must be updated each day that a county canvasses ballots, each time a voter is contacted by phone or mail, and each time a voter submits updated information. The record of non-compliant ballots and voter contacts must be sent to the SOS within 48 hours, then the record will be made publicly available within 24 hours of receipt.
A final report at the end of the ballot tabulation process includes a summary of how many ballots were received, the final outcome of how many ballots were counted, and also how many ballots remained in a “challenged” status and were rejected by the county’s canvassing board. In the process of tracking ballots and reporting the final outcome, election officials create an audit trail. These reports assist state and county decision-makers in identifying and understanding trends in elections across multiple years and making improvements to elections systems.
Public Records Exemptions: RCW 42.56.420 provides two Public Records Act (PRA) exemptions for certain election security information:
- “Continuity of operations plans for election operations” are exempt in their entirety from disclosure in response to public records requests. This exemption also entirely exempts three types of records related to physical security or cybersecurity of election operations or infrastructure: security audits; security risk assessments; and security test results.
- The second exemption for elections security encompasses portions of records containing information about election infrastructure, election security, or potential threats to election security if disclosure may increase risk to the integrity of election operations.
If the election results are close, a recount of votes may either be required or requested. Per RCW 29A.64.021(1) a mandatory recount will occur if the number of votes separating the candidates is fewer than 2,000 and less than 0.05% of the total number of votes cast. When a race is even closer, hand recounts may be required. During a hand recount, county staff reviews ballots in teams of two and hand tallies the votes.
If the closeness of the vote does not merit a mandatory recount, RCW 29A.64.011 allows an officer of a political party or any person for whom votes were cast to file a written application for a recount within two business days after the county canvassing board has declared the official results of the election.
When a manual recount is requested, the requesting party must deposit a fee of $0.25 for each vote cast in the jurisdiction or that portion of a jurisdiction for which the recount is requested. If the request is for a machine recount, the fee is $0.15 per vote cast (RCW 29A.64.030). The results of the recount become the amended abstract of the election and the winning candidate is then known.
When there is an exact tie vote, the winning candidate is publicly determined by lot, such as by the flip of a coin (RCW 29A.60.221).
Per RCW 29A.68.013, an elector (i.e., a U.S. citizen, at least 18 years old, and resident of the jurisdiction for at least 30 days) may file an election contest in court alleging that there has been an election error. For a local election, the filing of such an affidavit must be made within 10 days of the official vote certification (RCW 29A.68.013).
The affidavit may allege, for example, that there was misconduct by an election officer, that the person “elected” was not eligible for office, that the candidate had been convicted of a felony and has not had their civil rights restored, that there was a bribe given to a voter, or that an illegal vote was cast (RCW 29A.68.020). A court hearing is then held, witnesses are called, and a decision is rendered by a judge. Outcomes may include: the election is upheld, the election is voided, or the other candidate is determined to be the winner.
There is an additional legal process, called “recall,” where a registered voter of a jurisdiction may seek a recall petition against an elected official be placed before the voters after court review and signature gathering (see Chapter 29A.56 RCW). A recall, if successful, results in removal of that person from elected office.
The state, counties, cities, and towns are responsible for their proportionate share of election costs when any primary, general, or special election is held. State and federal offices are considered to be one entity for the purposes of determining proportionate election costs and reimbursements.
Special Purpose Districts: A special purpose district is liable for its proportionate share of the costs when such elections are held in conjunction with other elections held under RCW 29A.04.321 and 29A.04.330. However, if the district holds any primary, general, or special election on an isolated date, all costs of such elections must be borne solely by the district (RCW 29A.04.410). See the code revisor’s reference notes (below RCW 29A.04.410) for links to certain districts that have provisions on responsibility for payment of costs to create a district.
Specific cost allocations are delineated in the Washington State Auditor’s Office BARS Manual section 3.8.12 on Voter Registration and Election Cost Allocation (see Cash Basis Manual and/ or GAAP Manual).
- District-Based Elections and Redistricting
- Initiative and Referendum Powers
- Use of Public Facilities in Election Campaigns
Washington Secretary of State