This page provides a general overview of city council voting procedures in Washington State, including information on quorums, abstentions, mayoral votes and vetoes, and more.
City councils establish, review, and revise rules of procedure for the council meetings. This page does not include a discussion of the variety of council procedures adopted in Washington State, but it includes links to a variety of council procedures.
Many councils in Washington state have adopted Robert’s Rules of Order for council procedures such as voting. Robert's Rules Of Order, Newly Revised, 9th Edition indicates areas in which councils may form their own guidelines within the bounds of the law and gives references from the Revised Code of Washington and the State Attorney General’s Office opinions as applicable.
For more information, see our page Parliamentary Procedure: A Brief Guide to Robert's Rules of Order.
The general rule governing the transaction of council business is that a majority of the council must be present at the meeting to constitute a quorum. Attendance by phone or video conferencing counts as attendance and factors into the quorum (AGO 2017 No. 4). Below are sample council quorums.
- For a 7-member council, four members is a quorum
- For a 5-member council, three members is a quorum
All voting must take place at a public meeting with a quorum present. No secret ballots are allowed. Final action, including voting and preliminary votes, may not take place in Executive Session.
Although a quorum may be present, passage of most ordinances requires an affirmative vote of the majority of the council. For example, if a seven-member council has four councilmembers in attendance, all four members in attendance would have to vote in the affirmative to pass an ordinance.
A councilmember may abstain from voting on any issue before the council unless there is a local statute to the contrary. Some cities have adopted local rules of procedure that allow abstentions only when the councilmember states their reason for abstaining. Other cities require councilmembers to vote on all matters before the council unless a conflict of interest exists. The effect of an abstention on a vote is not specified by state law. Municipalities are free to adopt local rules of procedure to stipulate the effect of an abstention.
If a city does not have a rule, abstentions by one or more councilmembers may make it impossible for final action to be taken on a matter, particularly where a majority vote of the full council is needed.
Conflict of Interest
When a conflict of interest exists, a councilmember should refrain from voting. Generally, however, other councilmembers cannot prevent a councilmember from voting due to a conflict of interest or for any other reason.
It is a fundamental rule of parliamentary law that the right to vote is limited to those members actually present at the time a vote is taken at a legal meeting. State law is silent as to proxy voting by councilmembers. If the city or town has not adopted a rule of procedure to the contrary, councilmembers must be present at the time the vote is taken. Voting by proxy should not be confused with remote meeting attendance and voting.
Remote Attendance and Voting
Remote participation in public meetings may be approved by the governing body. MRSC recommends adopting a policy within the council guidelines and procedures that sets forth the circumstances under which remote participation will be allowed. Councilmembers attending meetings remotely via phone or video conferencing are generally recognized as “in attendance” and count towards making up the quorum for business, with the power to vote on business before the council.
In cities and towns operating under the mayor-council form of government, the mayor may vote only in case of a tie vote of the council. However, statutes for each class of city may further limit the situations in which a mayor may break a tie vote.
|Towns||Second Class Cities||Code Cities|
|Mayoral Vote||Vote as tie-breaker only (RCW 35.27.280)||Vote as tie-breaker only (RCW 32.23.201)||Vote as a tie-breaker in matters other than: the passage of an ordinance, grant, or revocation of franchise or license, or any resolution for the payment of money (RCW 35A.12.100)|
|Mayoral Veto Power||No Veto Power||May veto an ordinance. Veto can be overruled by five members of the council (RCW 35.23.211)||May veto an ordinance. Veto can be overruled by majority + 1 of entire council membership (RCW 35A.12.130)|
In all cities and towns operating under the council-manager form of government, the role of mayor is largely ceremonial. The mayor is only eligible to vote in their capacity as a councilmember and has no powers of veto (see RCW 35A.13.030 for code cities and RCW 35.18.190 for second class cities and towns).
In charter cities, the charter governs the role and powers of the mayor.
MRSC offers a variery of related topic pages, including:
- City Council Meeting Agendas — Offers general requirements and procedures related to city council agendas in Washington State
- Council/Board of Commissioners Rules of Procedure — Provides examples of city council and county commission rules of procedure for selected Washington State jurisdictions
- Roles and Responsibilities of Local Government Leaders — Offers an overview of the powers of the legislative and executive branches of cities and counties in Washington State
MRSC and our partners also offer related downloadable publications, including:
- Mayor and Councilmember Handbook — Serves as a reference guide for mayors and councilmembers in Washington cities and towns operating under the mayor-council form of government. Created in partnership with AWC.
- Open Public Meetings Act Practice Tips — Offers tips to help local governments stay in compliance with the OPMA. Created in partnership with SAO.