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Answers to Common Election Season Questions

Answers to Common Election Season Questions

Election season is here again, and, as with all elections, MRSC consultants field a host of questions from local government staff and elected officials. What may or may not be done by local government officials with regard to an election is driven by the language of RCW 42.17A.555, which 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.

Given this restriction, here are some topics that we have previously addressed.

The Use of Public Facilities

May any government facilities (equipment, postage, stationery, etc.) be used to support or oppose a candidate or ballot proposition? 

No. RCW 42.17A.555 specifically prohibits the use of public facilities to support or oppose candidates or ballot issues. Thus, local government officials and employees may not use employee time, computers, copiers, appointment books, paper, stamps, telephones, office space, vehicles, lists of clientele, or similar items or services to aid in a campaign.

May a local government agency allow the use of its meeting rooms by a campaign or candidate? 

The Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), the state agency that enforces RCW 42.17A.555, advises that the “[u]se of agency meeting facilities is permitted when the facility is merely a ‘neutral forum’ where the activity is taking place, and the public agency in charge of the facility is not actively endorsing or supporting the activity that is occurring.” See Guidelines for Local Government Agencies in Election Campaigns, PDC Interpretation 04-02 (amended May 2013), at page 19. A neutral forum might be a candidates’ night where candidates take turns giving speeches and “meeting and greeting” the public.

Supporting Ballot Propositions or Candidates

May a council, board or commission vote to support or oppose a ballot proposition? 

Yes, if the council, board, or commission is an elected legislative body (city or town council, county council, or board of county commissioners) or the elected governing body of a special purpose district, and provided certain steps are followed. RCW 42.17A.555(1) allows an elected local government body to vote to express collective support or opposition to a ballot proposition if the required notice of the meeting includes the title and number of the ballot proposition, and members of the elected body and members of the public are given an approximately equal opportunity to express an opposing view.

May an elected official, independent of his or her elected body, support or oppose a ballot proposition or candidate?

Yes, 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 or may make incidental remarks concerning a ballot proposition in an official communication, so long as there is no actual, measurable expenditure of public funds. An elected official may, in his or her capacity as a citizen, participate in political campaigns and promote or oppose a ballot proposition as long as public facilities are not used. 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. 

As such, an elected official may, without the use of any public facilities, serve on a campaign committee, doorbell, make a (personal) contribution, write a letter or editorial in support or opposition to a candidate or ballot proposition, or take other actions to the same extent any private citizen could take. If preparing a letter, editorial, or article concerning an election matter, an elected official may identify him or herself by title (mayor, councilmember, commissioner, etc.); however, there should be no suggestion that the writer is expressing an official position on behalf of the local government. It is best if the elected official states that fact.

May an official or local government employee wear a campaign button at meetings or at work?

Yes, if allowed by the agency’s rules. The PDC issued an interpretation on this question stating:

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.  Simply wearing a button which encourages support for or opposition to any candidate or ballot proposition, either directly or indirectly, is a form of personal expression and is not to be regarded as a “use of facilities” within the meaning and intent of the above-referenced statute.

Officials or employees who choose to wear such pins or buttons are urged to exercise caution and prudence. Such personal expression can quite easily lead to other activities that are prohibited.

However, the interpretation goes on to say that it “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, if a local agency rule prohibits the wearing of buttons, the state provisions do not supersede that local rule and they should not be worn.

Similarly, displaying campaign items at a person’s work desk is probably allowed unless the area is accessible or visible to members of the public, or is located in a publicly-visible space, such as a wall, window, or reception desk, which could leave the impression that the campaign is favored by the agency or its leadership.

Additional Resources

The PDC has issued a helpful interpretation discussing what elected and appointed government officials and employees can do on an election campaign: Guidelines for Local Government Agencies in Election Campaigns, Public Disclosure Law Re: Use of Public Facilities in Campaigns.

Additionally, below is a list of previous MRSC blog posts addressing related, and some of the same, election-season questions.

Questions? Comments?

The staff at the PDC will help local government officials interpret and apply the prohibition on use of public facilities in election campaigns. They may be contacted at (360) 753-1111.

If you have comments about this blog post, please comment below or email me. If you have questions about this, or other local government issues, you can contact us anytime by using our Ask MRSC form or calling us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772.

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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About Paul Sullivan

Paul worked with many local governments and authored numerous MRSC publications on local elections, ordinances, and general local government operations in his many years at MRSC. He is now retired.