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Election Season Has Arrived - Here's How to Do the Right Thing

Election Season Has Arrived - Here's How to Do the Right Thing

Whether we are elected officials, first-time candidates, supporters, or onlookers, we all want to do the right thing, especially with election laws. But how? Here are some suggestions.

The PDC and the SOS Are Our Friends

The Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) is the ultimate authority on campaign finance and rules. PDC information includes manuals, financial disclosure, forms, candidate instructions, guidelines, and interpretations. The Secretary of State (SOS) also offers online resources. 

Prohibition on the Use of Public Resources

RCW 42.17A.555 prohibits the use of public office or public facilities to directly or indirectly support a campaign for election or any ballot proposition. This law provides several exceptions, including when:

  • a governing body of a municipality expresses a collective opinion on a ballot measure,
  • an individual elected official may make a statement of support or opposition to a ballot measure, and
  • activities of a public agency are part of its normal and regular conduct.

Campaign Buttons

Campaign buttons may be worn by councilmembers, 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.

Yard Signs and Campaigns

We may display campaign signs in our yards and on our vehicles as well as on other property with permission. As a private citizen, an elected official may participate in political campaigns and promote or oppose a ballot proposition, but there shall be no use of a public office or agency. WAC 390-05-271(1), clarifies that RCW 42.17A.555 does not restrict the right of any individual to express personal views supporting or opposing any candidate or ballot proposition, so long as there is no use of a public office or facilities.

In related news, there are local and state regulations for campaign signs in public places. For more information, see our blog post on regulating non-commercial temporary signs during election season.

Coffee Meetings with the Public

I think elected officials running for re-election may continue to hold regular gatherings, including coffee meetings with constituents, so long as such meetings are not sponsored by the local government and there is no use of public resources.

Public Service Announcements

A state or municipal elected official may not speak or appear in a public service announcement (PSA) that is broadcast, shown, or distributed during the period from January 1 through the general election in a year the official is also candidate for office (see RCW 42.17A.575).

Candidate Forums and Debates

WAC 390-05-271(2)(a) clarifies that:

RCW 42.17A.555 does not prevent a public agency from making its facilities available on a nondiscriminatory, equal access basis for political uses.

So, a candidate forum or debate could be held in a city, county, or special purpose district venue so long as there was nondiscriminatory equal access.


This overview highlights some of the rules but does not cover all election season issues. MRSC Legal Consultant Paul Sullivan’s 2018 blog Answers to Common Election Season Questions covers a few additional topics that come up frequently during campaign season, and the PDC is the authority on compliance with campaign laws and regulations.

To do the right thing, study the rules and, when in doubt, ask for help.

Recommended Resources

Here are additional resources to consult during election season. 

Legal References

State Agencies


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.