Election Season Tips & Reminders
June 1, 2021
Now that the May election filing period has closed, it is time for some tips and reminders about the upcoming election season. This blog highlights some of MRSC’s guidance about participating in elections as a candidate, a supporter, or an observer.
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.
This means local government officials and employees may not use employee time, computers, copiers, appointment books, paper, stamps, telephones, office space, vehicles, lists of persons the agency serves, or similar items or services to assist in an election campaign. Make sure activities directly or indirectly involving a campaign for office or a ballot measure are conducted outside of public work hours and without using public resources.
This statutory prohibition includes several exceptions:
- 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.
- 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.”
- RCW 42.17A.555(3) allows “(a)ctivities which are part of the normal and regular conduct of the office or agency.”
Would RCW 42.17A.555 prevent a local government from holding a candidate forum or allowing another organization to use public facilities for a forum or debate? The answer to this question depends.
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 Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) has also addressed this issue in Guidelines for Local Government Agencies in Election Campaigns, PDC Interpretation 04-02 (amended May 2013). The relevant information is on page 19, and it notes:
Use 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.
Campaign Buttons and Pins
Campaign buttons, for example, in support of or against a particular issue or candidate, may be worn by elected officials, employees, and the public.
PDC Interpretation No. 92-01 stated 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.”
This 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, then this state provision would not supersede the local rule. However, any local prohibition would need to be content neutral 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.
Personal Views and Campaigns
Public employees and elected officials retain their normal civil rights and 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.
The Public Disclosure Commission is the authority for campaign rules and financial obligations. PDC information includes manuals, financial disclosure, forms, candidate instructions, guidelines, and interpretations.
Additionally, the Secretary of State (SOS) offers extensive online resources for election campaigns, including Running for Office FAQs.
Conclusion and MRSC 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.
For more information, please review the following resources we offer regarding elections.
- Election Season Rules – Does COVID-19 Change the Game? (2020)
- Election Season Has Arrived - Here's How to Do the Right Thing (2019)
- Answers to Common Election Season Questions (2018)
- Election Season is Upon Us! Do You Remember the Election-Related "Dos" and "Don'ts"? (2017)
- Use of Public Facilities in Election 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.