Ethics and Elections Commission Wayne Barnett, Executive Director
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Employee Political Activity

City employees have a right to be actively involved in political campaigns, and many are. These rights, however, may be restricted while at work, when representing the City, and in some rare instances when in conflict with an employee's official duties.

Both City and Washington State laws limit the use of public facilities and resources for campaign purposes. The City's Ethics Code also prohibits City employees from using theri position for private benefit, and prohibits them using City funds and facilities for a non-City purpose.

These FAQs highlight common issues encountered by City employees who are or wish to be active in political campaigns. The same restrictions apply to activities on behalf of candidates or supporting or opposing ballot propositions.

It is important to know, also, that, absent any conflict with official duties, City employees may not be treated differently because of their political activity outside the workplace.

  1. If a City employee wants to run for public office or be active in a campaign, what restrictions apply?

    Answer: City employees cannot use City resources for campaign purposes. For example, they cannot do campaign work at their City work stations or using City equipment, make campaign calls when they are on City time or in the workplace, place bumper stickers on City cars, display campaign signs or buttons in public work areas, or solicit contributions on City time or premises.

  2. Aren't elected officials subject to the same laws as City employees? They often publicly campaign for ballot issues.

    Answer: City elected officials are subject to the same laws as all City employees. However, the law sets certain exceptions for elected officials. Under the law, a City elected official can make a statement in support of or opposition to a ballot issue at an open press conference or in response to a specific inquiry.

    The City Council may take public actions such as passing motions, resolutions, or ordinances stating positions on ballot propositions and the mayor can concur in a resolution. Also, a City elected official's title can be published on campaign literature or in the voters' pamphlet as an endorser of a ballot proposition. City elected officials may not use City resources to work on a campaign, including their own, and cannot knowingly solicit campaign contributions from City employees.

  3. Can City employees wear campaign buttons while on the job?

    Answer: City employees who are in publicly visible jobs may not wear campaign buttons on the job. Other employees may, unless prohibited by other policies or workplace rules. The same rules may apply to campaign t-shirts being worn on the job.

  4. Some City departments are closely involved with ballot issues. How can they draw the line when something that is normally part of their work is now on the ballot?

    Answer: Employees who may discuss certain issues in the regular course of their jobs are subject to limitations when the issue officially becomes a ballot proposition. Before then, a department may continue the full range of its work involving that issue.

    For example, if the City is developing a levy to present to voters, a department may assign employees to develop proposals for how the money would be used. However, as soon as the issue is put on the ballot, the activities of the department's management and employees are limited, and they may not support or oppose the proposition in their official capacities.

    Departments are encouraged to develop fact sheets to assist employees in responding to customers' questions once an issue is on the ballot. SEEC staff can assist with this process and provide tailored training to help staff prepare.

  5. When does a measure become a ballot proposition? Since any issue may some day be on the ballot, when do the legal limits go into effect?

    Answer: The timing depends on the type of ballot proposition. An issue becomes a ballot proposition when:
  1. Proponents of an initiative submit a proposed form of petition to the City Clerk;

  2. Proponents of a City Charter Amendment begin collecting signatures;

  3. The City Council votes to place a measure on the ballot; or

  4. Application for a statewide initiative ballot title is made to the Secretary of State or the Legislature votes to put a question to the public on the ballot.
  1. Can an employee answer a question about an upcoming ballot issue, including his or her opinion of it?

    Answer: In response to inquiries, employees may share factual information that they communicate in the normal and regular course of their jobs. They cannot, however, express their opinion on a ballot proposition when they are representing the City or using City resources. The law prohibits City employees from using City time or other resources, or their positions, to support or oppose a campaign.

    In most cases, employees should refer inquires from the media or requests for public documents to their departments Public Information Officer.

  2. Can City employees give out or fax information to campaign committees?

    Answer: Yes, employees may give information that is requested by campaigns if it is the employees' normal and regular job activity to do so. The information that is provided must be information that would be provided to any member of the general public who requests it. Information should not be developed for the exclusive use of a campaign.

  3. When an employee is at a community meeting as part of the job, is it OK for the employee to answer a question about an upcoming election after the meeting?

    Answer: It is not appropriate for a City employee to express personal campaign opinions when attending a community meeting for work. When the employee is at a meeting in an official capacity, the employee should decline to express an opinion. If the employee is at a meeting as a private citizen and not as a representative of the City, the employee may express a personal opinion. The employee should make it clear that this is a personal opinion and not the position of the City or the department.

  4. If a community group asks an employee to come to a meeting to discuss a ballot proposition, can the employee go? What if the employee is also working on the campaign?

    Answer: An employee may attend and answer questions and share non-biased factual information with groups, and may also bring City-produced brochures, flyers, and reports to the presentation, if the items are available to the public as part of the department's normal course of duties. The employee may not express a personal opinion about the proposition while representing the City.

  5. How should an employee go about documenting work time, if he or she wants to do campaign work during normal work hours?

    Answer: Since campaign activities, like City jobs, occur during all hours of the day and night, it is recommended that employees who are active in campaigns be diligent about maintaining a clearly marked calendar or log that identifies the time spent working on the job and the periods that the employee is on legitimate personal, flexed, or leave time. This is especially recommended for employees who work non-standard shifts or are performing campaign work during normal business hours. It is not necessary that the log identify every activity, but should show the blocks of time the employee is off work.

  6. Can campaigns send event invitations to employees at their City work addresses?

    Answer: Delivery of postal mail is protected by federal law, so City employees may not interfere with it. However, since employees are prohibited by State and City laws from using City resources--including fax and e-mail--for campaign purposes, they should not give their work addresses to campaigns, and should discourage their use by campaign committees.

  7. The City owns meeting spaces that are available to the public for use. Can campaigns also use those spaces?

    Answer: Yes. If City facilities are available to the public for use, then candidates and ballot issue committees must have the same access to those facilities and under the same terms that the public does.

    If a department has interest in a ballot measure and allows a group that supports the ballot measure to use its public space, it must also allow a group that has the opposite position to use the space. This does not mean that if one group asks to use the facility, the department must try to find the opposing side. The City is only required to allow equal access to the facility.

For more information read
Public Employee Rights in the Political Process or
contact SEEC staff for advice.

For the Seattle Elections Code prohibition on use of facilities see
Seattle Municipal Code (SMC) 2.04.300

and the Revised Code of Washington, RCW 42.17A.555, for the State law.

Please note that these regulations pertain to candidates and propositions that are on the ballot, and not other issues and controversies that are often called "political." Other regulations and policies may apply. See also the Seattle Ethics Code FAQs regarding "Use of City Resources" and "Use of City Position," to the left, or contact your department's Human Resources office or SEEC staff for advice.

Last updated April 13, 2011.

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