Use of Public Facilities in Election Campaigns
This page provides an overview of the state law prohibiting the use of public facilities to support or oppose a ballot measure or an election campaign for public office by any local government official or employee in Washington State.
State law (RCW 42.17A.555) prohibits the use of facilities of a public office to support or oppose a ballot measure or an election campaign for public office. This prohibition was part of Initiative 276 adopted by the voters in 1972.
It is important for local government officials to be aware of what may and may not be done in regard to supporting or opposing a ballot proposition. These rules apply to all units of local government and their officials and employees, including counties, cities, towns, transit districts, port districts and other special districts.
The general prohibition against use of public facilities is very broad and comprehensive. The term "public facilities" is defined to include use of stationery, postage, equipment, use of employees during working hours, vehicles, office space, publications of the office, or lists of persons served by the local government.
This prohibition means that elective or appointive personnel of local governments may not work to support or oppose a ballot proposition during work time or allow public facilities to be used for that purpose.
Practice Tip: The Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) was created in 1972 to help interpret and enforce the laws that were a part of Initiative 276. The PDC is available to respond to questions concerning ballot measures and campaign issues and to provide informal opinions.
The PDC staff encourages local government officials to contact them with questions in advance of a proposed activity that may involve the use of public facilities in a ballot campaign. PDC contact information and additional information are available on the PDC website.
There are three specific exceptions to the broad prohibition on using public facilities to support or oppose a ballot proposition.
1. Legislative body motions/resolutions. A local governing body, such as a city council or a county or special purpose district board of commissioners, may vote on a motion or resolution to express support or opposition to a ballot proposition, provided that the legislative body follows the required procedural steps (see the examples section below for details).
2. Statements by elected officials. An elected official may make a statement in support or opposition to a ballot proposition at an open press conference or in response to a specific inquiry.
3. "Normal and regular conduct." The third exception is somewhat broader and allows activities which are part of the normal and regular conduct of the local government. Under this exception, a local government could prepare an objective and neutral presentation of facts concerning a ballot measure. For example, details could be provided to citizens concerning the financial impact of an initiative on the local government, such as how revenues would be affected by its passage. Care must be taken that this information be presented in a fair, objective manner.
Many local governments also allow use of their meeting room facilities on a nondiscriminatory, equal access basis to the public, usually for a rental fee. If this is the case, then it would be allowable to hold a public forum for citizens with pro and con representatives discussing an initiative in a public meeting hall.
Practice Tip: RCW 42.17A.555 does not restrict the right of local government officials and employees to express their own personal views supporting or opposing a ballot proposition, so long as that expression does not involve using public facilities (see WAC 390-05-271).
This means that elected officials and staff may campaign on their own time, using their own supplies and equipment, for or against a ballot proposition by preparing brochures, mailings, doorbelling, and other such activities.
Local employees and officials may also write letters to the editor expressing their personal views, and they may even identify their position with the local government. However, there should be no implication in the letter that the writer is expressing an official position on behalf of the local government.
As mentioned earlier, a local government legislative body may vote on a motion or resolution to express support or opposition to a ballot proposition (RCW 42.17A.555) if the following procedural steps are first taken:
- The notice for the meeting must include the title and number of the ballot proposition, and
- Members of the legislative body or members of the public must be allowed an approximately equal opportunity to express an opposing view.
Below are selected examples.
- Electric City Resolution No. 2019-15 (2019) – Supports countywide public safety sales tax due to jail overcrowding and need for additional police and criminal justice staff
- Issaquah Resolution No. 2019-13 (2019) – Opposes statewide Initiative 976 concerning motor vehicle taxes and fees due to negative impact on local transportation revenues and previous voter support of light rail projects endangered by the initiative; urges voters to vote against the initiative
- Kent Resolution No. 1909 (2015) – Supports countywide property tax increase for emergency radio network replacement; directs mayor to forward copies of the resolution to the county council and others as warranted
- Kirkland Resolution No. R-5334 (2018) – Supports statewide Initiative 1639 to enact stronger gun control measures and urges voters to support the initiative
- Port of Pasco Resolution No. 1495 (2018) – Opposes statewide Initiative 1631 concerning carbon emission fees due to commission's stated belief that the initiative redirects funding from necessary transportation projects without providing any replacement transportation funding
- Tumwater Resolution No. R2018-009 (2018) – Opposes local initiative to overturn the city's consumer fireworks ban, citing impacts to public safety, previous advisory vote results, election costs, and potential statutory conflict with RCW 70.77.250
- PDC: Guidelines for Local Government Agencies in Election Campaigns: Public Disclosure Law Re: Use of Public Facilities in Campaigns (2013) - Provides an overview of Washington state law in an easy-to-read format indicating what activities are permitted or not permitted, as well as general questions to consider.
- AWC: Guidelines for elected and appointed officials' participation in elections activity - Provides common examples of activities that city officials may or may not do in elections activity.