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AGO 1957 No. 61 - May 09, 1957
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John J. O'Connell | 1957-1968 | Attorney General of Washington


The statutory limitation of 75 words in the ballot title is directory rather than mandatory.

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                                                                    May 9, 1957

Honorable Paul Klasen
Prosecuting Attorney
Grant County
Ephrata, Washington                                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 57-58 No. 61

Dear Sir:

            You have requested an opinion from this office on the following questions relating to the ballot title for school bond and excess levy propositions:

            (1) Are the provisions of RCW 29.27.060 applicable to school district bond and excess levy propositions?

            (2) If question (1) is answered in the affirmative, does the fact that the statement printed on the ballot for a school district bond proposition exceeds seventy-five words impair the validity of bonds issued pursuant to authority secured from the electors of the district at the election?

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            Your first question is answered in the affirmative.  Your second question is answered in the negative, subject to certain qualifications expressed in the analysis.


            The pertinent part of RCW 29.27.060 reads as follows:

            "Questions to be submitted to the people of a county or municipality shall also be advertised as provided for nominees for office, and in such cases there shall also be printed on the ballot a concise statement not exceeding seventy-five words containing the essential features thereof expressed in such a manner as to clearly identify the proposition to be voted upon, which statement shall be prepared by the city attorney for the city, and by the prosecuting attorney for the county or any other political subdivision of the state, other than cities, situated in the county.

            "In addition to such a statement, the official preparing the statement . . . shall also prepare a caption, not to exceed five words in length, to permit the voters readily to identify the proposition and distinguish it from other propositions on the ballot. . . . "  (Emphasis supplied.)

            Strictly speaking, a "municipality" is characterized by the fact of voluntary association by the inhabitants of the territory and by the existence of a charter.  62 C.J.S. 77.  A school district lacks these characteristics and is not strictly speaking a "municipality" or a "municipal corporation".  Properly classified, a school district is a quasi-municipal corporation.  62 C.J.S. 64 and 74;Maxon v. School District No. 34, 5 Wash. 142, 145; State ex rel. School District v. Grimes,  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] 7 Wash. 270, 272.  However, when the term "municipality" or "municipal corporation" is used in a broad or generic sense, it may include quasi-municipal corporations such as school districts.  State v. Grimes, supra;State ex rel. Griffiths v. Superior Court, 177 Wash. 619, 621;Maxon v. School District No. 34, supra.  The meaning to be attributed to the word as used in a particular statute must be determined by reference to the legislative intent as evidenced by the language of the statute and its subject-matter.  1 McQuillin, Municipal Corporations, (3rd ed.) 472; 62 C.J.S. 76.

            In RCW 29.27.060, the word "municipality" must be interpreted in the light of that portion of the statute which states that the prosecuting attorney shall prepare the ballot statement for the county "or any other political subdivision of the state, other than cities, situated in the county."  In our opinion this language indicates that the legislature used the word "municipality" in its generic or broad sense so as to include quasi-municipal corporations such as school districts.  Had the legislature intended otherwise, it could easily have used the word "town" in place of "any other political subdivision of the state", a town being the only other true municipality situated in the county.

            The distinctive marks of a political subdivision of the state are:

            ". . . That they embrace a certain territory and its inhabitants, organized for the public advantage and not in the interest of particular individuals or classes; that their chief design is the exercise of governmental functions; and that to the electors residing within each is to some extent committed the power of local government, to be weilded either mediately or immediately within their territory for the particular benefit of the people there residing."  Allison v. Corker, 52 Atl. 362, 365, 67 N.J.L. 596.

            In this state a school district embraces a certain territory  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] and its inhabitants.  It is organized to exercise a governmental function, and in the exercise of that function it affects and benefits all within the territory alike.  Board of Directors v. Petersen, 4 Wash. 147.  The power of local government has been committed to the electors of a school district; they elect the governing body of the district and determine, to some extent, the amount of taxes that are levied on property within the district.  We conclude that a school district is a political subdivision of the state.  This conclusion is supported by the following cases from other jurisdictions:

            Silver Lake Consolidated School District v. Parker, 29 N.W. (2d) 214, 217, 238 Iowa 984;School District 47 Joint, Columbia County, v. U.S. National Bank of Portland, 211 P. (2d) 723, 729, 187 Ore. 360; Baldwin v. Board of Education of City of Fargo, 33 N.W. (2d) 473, 482, 76 N. D. 51; Ridge v. Boulder Creek Union Junior-Senior High School District of Santa Cruz County, 140 P. (2d) 990, 995, 60 Cal. App. (2d) 453.

            There is an additional reason for the conclusion that a school district is a municipality within the purview of the statute.  The obvious purpose of RCW 29.27.060 is to enable the electors to readily identify each proposition and vote intelligently thereon within the time allotted to each elector.  We note that there is no other statute which limits the length of statements on propositions submitted by school districts or which requires that such statements have a caption.  Under existing election laws, state, county, city and school district propositions often appear on the same ballot.  Unless the word "municipality" is broadly interpreted so as to include school districts, there will be no uniformity in presenting propositions; and lengthy and uncaptioned school propositions on the same ballot with state, county, and city propositions will defeat the purpose for which the legislature enacted RCW 29.27.060.  In our opinion, the legislature could not have intended such a result.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 5]]

            We conclude, therefore, that the legislature intended the word "municipality" to be broadly interpreted so as to include a school district and that the provisions of the statute are applicable to bond and excess levy propositions submitted to the electors of a school district.

            In our opinion, however, a statement in excess of seventy-five words does not, ipso facto, destroy the validity of school bonds issued pursuant to authority secured from the electors at the election.  The statute does not expressly so provide, and in such cases, the provisions of the statute are generally deemed directory rather than mandatory.

            ". . . while some elections have been held invalid by reason of nonconformity of the ballot to constitutional or statutory provisions, more frequently an election is upheld notwithstanding an objection to, or irregularity in, the form of the ballot, as where there has been a substantial compliance with the constitutional or statutory provisions prescribing the form of the ballot, the statute prescribing the form is directory only, no voter has been deceived or misled or deprived of his right to vote, by reason of the form used, or the voters were afforded and exercised an opportunity fully and fairly to express their opinion.  In determining whether the ballots substantially comply with constitutional provisions respecting their form, the purpose of such provisions should be kept in mind. . . ." 64 C.J.S. (1923) 535.

            In the absence of evidence indicating that the length of the statement in excess of seventy-five words prevented the electors from intelligently exercising their franchise, we believe such a statement would not invalidate bonds issued pursuant to authority secured at the election.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 6]]

            We trust that this opinion will be of assistance to you.

Yours very truly,

Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General

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