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Municipal Elections – Running for Office

A diverse group of politicians sitting at a dais and speaking to the press

We are once again in an odd-numbered year when many local government elections are scheduled to take place. About half of councilmember positions in towns and cities will be up for election, as will any mayors who were recently appointed to their positions. Many board positions in special purpose districts are also up for election this year.

Although not all municipal elective offices involve opposed election races, the same filing requirements apply for all candidates. Many persons will consider running for office and may be encouraged to do so by their families, friends, and/or colleagues.

Whether you are a first-time candidate or already an elected official, the decision to run for election or reelection is a big one. Here are some tips and resources about running for local government office in our state.

Requirements of the Office

Start by exploring and researching the position that you are considering in order to gather valuable information that will help you understand what could be involved in serving a local government agency.

A great deal of information is available online, including the website of the local agency you would be serving as an elected official as well as more general information on MRSC’s website, such as a variety of topics associated with governance. Other resources include county election offices, which often provide candidate information. A few examples include:

Build your understanding of the roles and responsibilities of various elected positions. Some positions are purely legislative in nature, while others include or are exclusively executive in nature. Legislative positions generally involve setting policy while executive positions involve overseeing the day-to-day operations. Having a clear understanding of this difference can help ensure you are running for a position that suits your goals as a public servant. Depending on the size and complexity of a particular special purpose district, a commissioner will likely have different responsibilities, even from their counterparts in similar but differently sized districts.

Many potential candidates further explore the commitment required for the position by attending public meetings, consulting with others — including those who hold or have held elective offices — and reading media coverage of public agencies.

There are state law requirements and guidelines required of all candidates, some of which are discussed in this blog. For more information, visit the MRSC webpage, Roles and Responsibilities of Local Government Leaders.

Eligibility to Hold Office

Each elective office has eligibility requirements. A candidate must be a registered voter and typically needs to be a resident of the jurisdiction, though for some special purpose districts, residency is not required.

On the other hand, for non-charter code cities, there is an additional requirement related to length of residency in the city. RCW 35A.12.030 requires candidates in code cities to be registered to vote within the city and to have been a city resident for at least one year at the time of filing for candidacy. For cities with district-based voting, candidates must also reside within the district for the position they are seeking.

Anyone considering running for elective office should review their voter registration at VoteWA to make sure their residential address and county are correctly listed. If not, it can be updated online, by mail, or in person at a county elections office.

For persons who are city employees and also wish to run for elected office in their city, there are additional considerations. For example, in code cities, RCW 35A.12.030 provides, in relevant part:

A mayor or councilmember shall hold within the city government no other public office or employment except as permitted under the provisions of chapter 42.23 RCW.

Chapter 42.23 RCW is the Code of Ethics for Municipal Officers and allows limited employment for elected officials under certain circumstances. In essence, an employee may run for office, but if they are successful in the election, then they may need to resign from their public employment. The common law doctrine of Incompatible Offices applies when one person holds two elective or appointed municipal offices, and it extends to cities, towns, counties, and special purpose districts. For advice about how these laws may apply to a particular person or position, please consult with your public agency’s legal counsel and/or a private attorney with elections law expertise.

Declaring Candidacy

The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) has many resources for candidates and potential candidates.

When determining whether or not to run for office, a person should carefully consider how and when to begin their candidacy. Filing for office in May is only one of five ways a candidacy is deemed to have begun. Under state law, saying publicly that you are running for office is another way to begin a candidacy.

Here are all the actions that result in a person becoming a candidate:

  • Accepting a contribution or spending money for your campaign,
  • Reserving space or purchasing advertising to promote your candidacy,
  • Authorizing someone else to do any of these activities on your behalf,
  • Stating publicly that you are seeking office, or
  • Filing a declaration of candidacy.

To avoid triggering the beginning of a campaign inadvertently or earlier than planned, a person exploring whether to run should say that they are “thinking about running” for office. It is important to be aware of the exact date of your candidacy because several laws will apply to you as soon as your campaign has started.

PDC Financial Disclosures

After becoming a candidate there are two weeks to comply with PDC requirements for financial disclosures, including submitting an F-1 statement online. The PDC’s Registration & Reporting webpage covers many of these required documents. The PDC website also has resources to help potential candidates, active candidates, officials, and members of the public learn about campaign laws.

2023 Schedule: Filing, Voters’ Pamphlet Deadline, Elections

Each county elections office has information online about elections and candidate filing. The table below covers key dates for the 2023 election season.

Key Dates
May 15 - May 19 Filing week: submit declaration of candidacy — online or paper forms.
Monday, May 22 Last day to withdraw a candidacy filing.
Friday, May 26 Deadline for materials (photo, statement, resume) for the voters’ pamphlets for all statewide, congressional, legislative, and judicial candidates. Candidate statements for election due.
Tuesday, August 1 2023 Primary Election
Tuesday, November 7 2023 General Election

Prohibition on Use of Public Facilities and Resources

All candidates for public office should understand the prohibition on use of public facilities and resources in RCW 42.17A.555. For an overview and details about this prohibition please visit MRSC’s webpage, Use of Public Facilities in Election Campaigns.

In addition, for any candidate employed at a public agency, campaign activities need to be kept entirely separate from work time and activities.

Another limitation for candidates is RCW 42.17A.575, which restricts their participation in public service announcements during an election year.

Additional Resources

Best of luck to everyone, including those who will be running for office this year. Here are links to additional resources.

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.

Photo of Linda Gallagher

About Linda Gallagher

Linda Gallagher joined MRSC in 2017. She previously served as a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for King County and as an Assistant Attorney General.

Linda’s municipal law experience includes risk management, torts, civil rights, transit, employment, workers compensation, eminent domain, vehicle licensing, law enforcement, corrections, and public health.

She graduated from the University of Washington School of Law.