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Election Season Tips and Reminders

With election season in full swing, it is time to review tips and reminders about a variety of areas that can trip up candidates, elected officials, and local government agencies and their staff. This blog highlights some of MRSC’s guidance on a variety of election-related issues.

Public Facilities and Resources 

State law prohibits the use of public facilities to support or oppose candidates or ballot issues. 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.

While RCW 42.17A.555 identifies what could be considered a public facility or resource (i.e., employee time, paper, stamps, office space, vehicles, etc.), here are some other common items that officials and employees should avoid using when campaigning for public office, supporting/opposing another campaign, or working on behalf of a ballot issue: agency computers, copiers, coffee makers, and other equipment, agency-branded items, and agency-sponsored social media pages.

Officials and public agency employees should make sure any activities directly or indirectly involving a campaign for office or a ballot measure are conducted outside of public work hours without using public resources. However, this statutory prohibition includes the following three exceptions:

  1. RCW 42.17A.555(1) allows an elected local government body “to express a collective decision, or to actually vote upon a motion, proposal, resolution, order, or ordinance, or to support or oppose a ballot proposition to vote to express collective support or opposition to a ballot proposition.” This section includes requirements for notice to the public and an opportunity for the opposing views to be presented.
  2. RCW 42.17A.555(2) allows an elected official to issue a statement “in support of or in opposition to any ballot proposition at an open press conference or in response to a specific inquiry.”
  3. RCW 42.17A.555(3) allows “(a)ctivities which are part of the normal and regular conduct of the office or agency.”

Our webpage Use of Public Facilities in Election Campaigns offers more information.

Public Agency-Sponsored Forums

Under some circumstances,  RCW 42.17A.555 allows a local government to use its public facilities to hold a forum for candidates or for pro/con sides to debate a ballot measure.

WAC 390-05-271(2)(a) explains that RCW 42.17A.555 does not prevent an agency from “making its facilities available on a nondiscriminatory, equal access basis for political uses.”

The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) has also addressed this issue (and more) in Guidelines for Local Government Agencies in Election Campaigns (PDC Interpretation 04-02). Public agency meeting facilities may be used when the facility is a ‘neutral forum’ where campaign activity is taking place and the agency is not actively endorsing or supporting the activity that is occurring. For example, when sponsoring discussion involving ballot measures, agencies should make sure both the supporting and opposing groups are given equal access to present their case, including the distribution of campaign materials.

Our blog Supporting/Opposing Ballot Measures offers more information on this topic.

Campaign Buttons and Pins

Campaign buttons, for example, in support of or against a particular issue or candidate, may be worn by elected officials or public agency employees.

PDC Interpretation No. 92-01 states that “an elected official or public employee is not acting in violation of RCW 42.17A.555 when he or she wears a typical campaign pin or button during normal working hours.”

However, it should be noted that a local government may decide to develop a policy prohibiting employees from wearing campaign buttons or pins. PDC Interpretation No. 92-01 notes that its’ policy “should not be construed as an authorization to wear political pins, buttons, etc., which would override or supersede an agency’s statute, ordinance, rule, policy, etc., restricting such expressions.”

So, the state provision does not supersede the local rule. However, any local prohibition would need to be content neutral (i.e., regulates only the time, place, and manner of speech, and not the speech itself) in order to avoid a potential First Amendment violation.

Public Service Announcements

RCW 42.17A.575 prohibits state or municipal elected officials from speaking or appearing in public service announcements (PSAs) that are broadcast, shown, or distributed during the period from January 1 through the general election in a year the official is also running as a candidate for office.

Political Campaigns

Public employees and elected officials can be involved in political campaigns in their private capacity. RCW 41.06.250(2) provides:

Employees of the state or any political subdivision thereof shall have the right to vote and to express their opinions on all political subjects and candidates and to hold any political party office or participate in the management of a partisan, political campaign. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an employee of the state or any political subdivision thereof from participating fully in campaigns relating to constitutional amendments, referendums, initiatives, and issues of a similar character, and for nonpartisan offices.

Regarding participation in political campaigns, WAC 390-05-271(1), a regulation adopted by the PDC, clarifies that RCW 42.17A.555 does not restrict the right of any individual to express his or her personal views concerning, supporting, or opposing any candidate or ballot proposition, so long as that expression does not involve a use of public facilities. 

Social Media

Social media use is certainly a focus (and locus) for the discussion of political issues. Obviously, RCW 42.17A.555 prohibits public agencies from using agency-based social media to either support or oppose ballot initiatives or candidates, but how about public officials or employees using their private social media accounts?

Since public employees retain their civil rights, they can be involved in political campaigns or express their support of a candidate or ballot measure in their private capacity — so public agency supervisors cannot prohibit employees from political activity done on their own time that does not use any public facilities (i.e., resources).

Similarly, local government elected officials are able to engage in political activity as long as they use private devices and not public resources. However, anyone connected with a public agency and wishing to make a statement in support or opposition to a ballot initiative or a candidate should make it clear that they are stating their personal opinion and not expressing the view of the agency or its governing body — regardless of the type of media used, including social media accounts.

Regulating Political Signs

Though it was published in 2021, the blog Regulating Signs During Election Season touches on some frequently asked questions regarding the regulation of political signage. Similarly, our webpage on Sign Regulation provides a general overview of sign regulation, including examples of comprehensive sign codes and approaches to temporary sign regulation.

Conclusion and Resources

For public employees and officials, whether you are a candidate, a supporter, or an observer, it is important to understand the laws and rules that apply during the election season.

The PDC is the authority for campaign rules and financial obligations. PDC's extensive website includes information includes manuals, financial disclosure, forms, candidate instructions, guidelines, and interpretations.

The Washington Secretary of State (SOS) offers extensive online resources for election campaigns, including Running for Office FAQs.  

MRSC offers many resources regarding elections. For starters, check out our Local Elections series, which are several webpages covering resources for candidates and newly elected officials, ballot measures, elections administration, redistricting at the local government level, and restrictions on the use of public facilities in elections campaigns.

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.

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MRSC Insight reflects the best writing of MRSC staff on timeless topics that impact staff and elected officials in Washington cities, counties, and special purpose districts.