Election Season is Upon Us! Do You Remember the Election-Related “Dos” and “Don’ts”?
August 25, 2017
There are many election issues that arise each year. Fortunately, we have addressed many of them in the past. Please take the time to refresh yourself on the following basics and do not hesitate to consult with your own legal counsel—or give MRSC or the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) a call—if you are still confused about an election-related issue.
Use of Public Facilities
The basic statute, RCW 42.17A.555, provides in part:
No elective official nor any employee of his or her office nor any person appointed to or employed by any public office or agency may use or authorize the use of any of the facilities of a public office or agency, directly or indirectly, for the purpose of assisting a campaign for election of any person to any office or for the promotion of or opposition to any ballot proposition. Facilities of a public office or agency include, but are not limited to, use of stationery, postage, machines, and equipment, use of employees of the office or agency during working hours, vehicles, office space, publications of the office or agency, and clientele lists of persons served by the office or agency. . . .
In a previous blog post, MRSC provided Answers to Common Election Season Questions Regarding Use of Public Facilities. That advice is still accurate and deals with many issues, including:
- May a local government agency allow the use of its meeting rooms by a campaign or candidate?
- May a council, board, or commission vote to support an initiative or candidate?
- May an elected official, independent of his or her elected body, support or oppose an initiative or candidate?
- May an official or employee wear a campaign button at meetings or at work?
Review that blog post if you feel that you need a refresher on the basics. The post also provides links to additional resources, including a good summary of election issues by the PDC.
Campaigning During Open Public Meetings
Generally, no one should be allowed to speak in support of, or in opposition to, a political campaign during an open public meeting. The PDC advises that the following behavior violates RCW 42.17A.555:
- Allowing members of the public to speak in support of, or in opposition to, a ballot measure or individual candidacy during public comment time; and
- Allowing members of a legislative body or public employees to raise such issues during an open public meeting, except as allowed under RCW 42.17A.555(1), (2), and (3).
We recommend that the individual chairing an open public meeting held during election season caution the audience and legislative body not to raise such issues.
Social media use is becoming more prevalent each year, and it is certainly a focus (and locus) for the discussion of political issues. Obviously, public agencies are prohibited (by RCW 42.17A.555) from using social media to either support or oppose ballot initiatives or candidates. But how about public officials or employees using their private social media accounts to support or oppose ballot initiatives or candidates?
Clearly, public employees and elected officials retain their normal civil rights and can be involved in political campaigns in their private capacity—see RCW 41.06.250(2) and WAC 390-05-271(1). So public agency supervisors cannot prohibit public employees from political activity done on their own time that does not use any public facilities, such as public computers or networks. Similarly, local government elected officials are able to use their private social media accounts and private devices to engage in political activity. We recommend that elected officials who make statements supporting or opposing ballot initiatives or candidates, regardless of the media used (social media, speeches at campaign rallies, letters to the editor, etc.), always make it clear that they are not expressing the view of the public agency or elected body, but merely their own opinion: “my personal view is . . .”
Regulating Political Signs
On August 16, MRSC posted a new blog post discussing how local governments may regulate political signs. Please review that blog post for more information on how to approach political signs.
The election season raises issues that are sometimes divisive—and emotional—for some people. Public agencies should be cautious and keep out of the tempest. Do your best to make sure the agency’s employees and officials are fair and impartial when dealing in their public capacity with election related issues.
If you have questions about elections or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have comments about this blog post or other topics you would like us to write about, please email me at email@example.com.
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.