Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

AGO 1972 No. 7 -
Attorney General Slade Gorton


The contents of political advertising as regulated by statute; the placement of campaign signs to be used in partisan political races; and participation by state or local governmental employees in both partisan and nonpartisan political campaigns, including the holding of political party offices.

                                                              - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                                February 10, 1972

Honorable Stewart Bledsoe
State Representative, 13th District
Legislative Building
Olympia, Washington 98504

                                                                                                                   Cite as:  AGO 1972 No. 7

Dear Sir:

            By separate letters previously acknowledged you have requested an opinion of this office outlining the scope of present laws affecting the following two aspects of political campaign activities:

            (1) The contents of political advertising and the placement of campaign signs used in partisan political races;

            (2) Participation by state or local governmental employees in both partisan and nonpartisan political campaigns, including the holding of political party offices.


            Before proceeding to outline the information which you have requested, we believe that two preliminary remarks are in order ‑ the first of which pertains to the constitutionality of the various statutes to which we will refer below.  It will, of course, be beyond the scope of this opinion to pass upon the constitutionality of any of these duly enacted statutes, for it has long been the policy of this office to presume the validity of any statute which has been enacted by our legislature until such time as it is held invalid by  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] a court of competent jurisdiction.  See, AGO 57-58 No. 13,1/ and other opinions cited therein.  Thus, although we are aware of certain recent court decisions from other jurisdictions holding particular statutes relating to political campaign activities to be unconstitutional ‑ primarily on 1st Amendment "freedom of speech"2/ grounds ‑ no attempt will be made herein to evaluate any of these decisions in terms of their possible impact upon our own state statutes in the event of a court challenge to their constitutionality.

            Our second preliminary remark is in the nature of a caveat related to the scope of this opinion:  Over and above the state statutes to be discussed herein, and the federal "Hatch Act" which will also be noted, any persons who may be involved in a political campaign ‑ as candidates or otherwise ‑ should at all times be conscious of the possibility that there may also be in effect in the particular geographic area in which they are operating certain local (county or city) ordinances pertaining to the activities in question.  As an example of such local ordinances we have attached hereto, as Appendix B, a copy of a current King county ordinance regulating the use of political signs and posters.  We trust that you will understand the impracticality of our attempting to search out and summarize every such local ordinance which might have some bearing upon the activities of political candidates in each of the numerous counties and cities of this state.  Instead, therefore, we would simply call this factor to your attention as a means of alerting you to the possibility of these local ordinances.

            We turn now to the essential subject matter herein; namely, a resume of existing statutes governing (a) political advertising and related matters; and (b) participation in political campaigns and activities by state and local governmental employees.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            I.Political Advertising

            There are four general and two special statutes to be noted under this heading.  First to be considered is RCW 29.85.270 which provides that:

            "All political advertising, whether relating to candidates or issues, however promulgated or disseminated, shall identify at least one of the sponsors thereof if the advertising is sponsored by other than the candidate or candidates listed thereon, by listing the name and address of the sponsor or sponsors on the material or in connection with its presentation.  If a candidate or candidates run for partisan political office, they and their sponsors shall also designate on all such political advertising clearly in connection with each such candidate the party to which each such candidate belongs.  The person or persons listed as sponsors of such advertising shall warrant its truth.  The use of an assumed name shall be unlawful.  Whenever any corporation sponsors political advertising, the name and address of the president of the corporation shall be listed on the material or in connection with its presentation."

            In AGO 55-57 No. 157 [[to Secretary of State on November 7, 1955]], we concluded that this statute is applicable to both state and local political campaigns, partisan and nonpartisan, involving both candidates and measures.  The two basic requirements of the statute are that all political advertisements (including signs, newspaper advertisements, and radio or television ads) shall (a) identify the sponsor or sponsors of the advertisement, if other than the candidate named therein; and (b) designate the political party (if any) with which the candidate is affiliated.  Any violations of this statute are, according to RCW 29.85.280, gross misdemeanors

            ". . . and shall be subject to a fine of not more than one thousand dollars or imprisonment for not more than one year, or both."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]   Next to be noted is RCW 29.85.070, also of general applicability, which imposes the following constraints upon the substance or content of political advertising:

            "Any person who in any way, directly or indirectly, by menace or other corrupt means or device, attempts to influence any person in giving or refusing to give his vote in any election, or deters or dissuages any person from giving his vote therein, or disturbs, hinders, persuades, threatens, or intimidates any person from giving his vote therein;or who at any such election, knowingly and wilfully makes any false assertion or propagates any false report concerning any person who is candidate thereat, which shall have a tendency to prevent his election, or with a view thereto, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, on conviction, shall be punished by a fine of not to exceed two hundred fifty dollars or by imprisonment for the term of six months, or by both."  (Emphasis supplied.)

            The third general provision of which all candidates and their supporters should be aware is RCW 29.51.020 which relates to political advertising activities at polling places on election days and provides that:

            "No person shall do any electioneering, or circulate cards or handbills of any kind, or solicit signatures to any kind of petition on primary or election day within any polling place, or any building in which an election is being held, or within one hundred feet thereof, nor obstruct the doors or entries thereto, or prevent free ingress to and egress from said building.  Any election officer, sheriff, constable, or other peace officer shall have power to and shall clear the passageway and prevent such obstruction, and arrest any person creating such obstruction.

            ". . ."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 5]]

            Last to be listed under the heading of political advertising, generally, is RCW 65.16.095 ‑ a statute which is aimed at protecting the purchasers of political advertising space in newspapers from rate discrimination ‑ as follows:

            "The rate charged by a newspaper for advertising in relation to candidates for political office shall not exceed the national advertising rate extended to all general advertisers and advertising agencies in its published rate card."

            The two "special" statutes to be here included (i.e., statutes dealing with special electoral situations) are RCW 29.79.490 and RCW 29.82.220.  The first of these involves campaigns pertaining to a state initiative or referendum measure and provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

            "Every person shall be guilty of a gross misdemeanor who:

            ". . .

            "(2) Advertises in any manner that for or without consideration, he will solicit or procure signatures upon or influence or attempt to influence persons to sign or not to sign, to vote or not to vote upon an initiative or referendum petition or to vote for or against any initiative or referendum; or

            ". . .

            "(6) Receives, handles, distributes, pays out or gives away, directly or indirectly, money or any other thing of value contributed by or received from any person, firm, association, or corporation whose residence or principal office is, or the majority of whose members or stockholders have their residence outside, the state of Washington, for any service rendered for the purpose of aiding in procuring signatures upon any initiative or referendum petition or for the purpose of aiding in the adoption or rejection of any initiative or referendum measure."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 6]]

            In AGO 1971 No. 6 [[to Secretary of State on February 2, 1971]], we concluded that subsection (6) is applicable to financing received from foreign corporations as well as those domestic corporations which have principal offices elsewhere or which have a majority of their members or shareholders residing elsewhere.  A virtually identical set of prohibitions also appears in the second special statute above cited, RCW 29.82.230 ‑ except that this statute deals with recall campaigns against public officers rather than with initiative or referendum campaigns.

            II.Political Signs and the Placement Thereof

            Except for RCW 29.85.270, supra, dealing with the identification of sponsors and party affiliations in political advertising, there are no Washington statutes currently in effect which deal specifically with political advertising signs.  However there are several statutes which regulate the placement of signs, generally.  The first of these to be noted is RCW 9.61.040, a criminal statute which provides (in material part) that:

            "Every person who shall wilfully‑-

            ". . .

            "(14) Place upon or affix to any real property or any rock, tree, wall, fence or other structure thereupon, without the consent of the owner thereof, any word, character or device designed to advertise any article, business, profession, exhibition, matter or event; . . .

            ". . .

            "Shall be guilty of a misdemeanor."

            This statute, it will be seen, makes it a misdemeanor wilfully to place certain advertising signs or devices upon the private property of a landowner without the permission of the owner.  We would think that an individual's candidacy for public office would consititute a "matter or event" under these provisions.

            Conversely, another statute, RCW 9.61.010 (15), makes it a misdemeanor "wilfully or maliciously" to remove, damage or destroy  [[Orig. Op. Page 7]] any ". . . sign or notice erected or posted by . . . the owner or occupant of the premises where posted."3/

             The next statute to be discussed with regard to the placement of signs, generally, (including political signs) is the highway advertising control act of 1961 (chapter 96, Laws of 1961), as modified by the scenic vistas act of 1971 (chapter 62, Laws of 1971, 1st Ex. Sess.) ‑ codified in chapter 47.42 RCW.  The basic prohibition of this legislation, as currently set forth in § 3, chapter 62,supra, reads as follows:

            "Except as permitted under this chapter, no person shall erect or maintain a sign which is visible from the main traveled way of the interstate system, the primary system, or the scenic system.  In case a highway or a section of highway is both a part of the primary system and the scenic system, only those signs permitted along the scenic system shall be erected or maintained."4/

             We have carefully examined this chapter in its entirety and are satisfied that none of the "exceptions" which it permits would cover ‑ and thereby excuse from compliance with the act ‑ the placement and erection of political advertising  [[Orig. Op. Page 8]] signs.5/

             Another statute dealing with signs on or adjacent to state highways which should be considered is RCW 47.24.020.  Subsection (3) of this statute, dealing with the jurisdiction of the state highway commission over city streets which are a part of our state highway system, provides that:

            "The state highway commission shall have authority to prohibit the suspension of signs, banners, or decorations above the portion of such street between the curbs or portion used for highway purposes up to a vertical height of twenty feet above the surface of the roadway;"

            Also to be noted is RCW 36.86.100 ‑ dealing with signs, generally ‑ which provides that:

            ". . . It shall be unlawful to erect or maintain a sign, signboard, or billboard at or near a county road or railroad and within a distance of five hundred feet from the point of intersection at grade of the road and railroad and in such a way that it may obstruct the view or distract the attention of a person operating a vehicle or train and approaching the crossing."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 9]]

            A parallel provision, RCW 47.32.140, flatly prohibits the erection or maintenance ofany sign within five hundred feet of the intersection of a railroad right of way and astate highway, regardless of the tendency of such sign to obstruct the view of either railroad or automobile operators.

            Another statute having a possible bearing upon the placement of political campaign signs is RCW 47.36.180.  This statute forbids the erection or maintenance near any city street, county road, or state highway of any structure, sign or device which:

            (a) Simulates a directional warning or danger signal, or which might be confused for one of the foregoing because it bears such words as "stop," or "slow," for example;

            (b) Displays red, amber, green, or flashing lights which could result in its being confused with a traffic control device;

            (c) Utilizes lights which tend to impair vision or which might be confused for another motor vehicle; or

            (d) Utilizes any flood light which falls directly on a roadway.

            Finally, we would call your attention to the provisions of RCW 46.61.075, which include a prohibition against placement of any sign which hides from view or interferes with any official traffic control devices.

            By way of a brief summary of these several statutes relating to the placement of political signs, the following "shorthand" rules may be listed:

            (1) No signs on private property without consent of the owner thereof;

            (2) No removal of signs from private property where legally posted by the owner or occupant;

            (3) No signs which are visible from a highway governed by chapter 47.42 RCW;

            (4) No signs or banners suspended over a city street which is part of the state highway system if prohibited by the highway commission;

             [[Orig. Op. Page 10]] (5) No signs within five hundred feet of a county road ‑ railroad grade crossing which would obstruct vision or distract vehicle or train operators;

            (6) No signs within five hundred feet of a state highway ‑ railroad grade crossing under any circumstances;

            (7) No signs near any streets, roads or highways which might be confused for a traffic signal or could impair the vision of vehicle operators; and

            (8) No signs hiding from view or interfering with any official traffic control devices.

            III.Participation in Political Activities by Public Employees

            No single statute currently in effect purports to govern the subject of participation in political campaigns or party organizations by all public employees in this state.  Instead, the current state of the law in this area necessitates separate discussion of the status of each of five distinct categories of public employees.

            A.State Civil Service Employees under Chapter 41.06 RCW

            Those state employees covered by our general state civil service law (chapter 41.06 RCW)6/ are thereby governed, insofar as political activities are concerned, by the following provisions of RCW 41.06.250:

            ". . .

            "(2) Employees shall have the right to vote and to express their opinions on all political subjects and candidates, but shall not hold any political party office or participate in the management of a partisan, political campaign.  Nothing in this section shall prohibit a classified employee from participating fully in  [[Orig. Op. Page 11]] campaigns relating to constitutional amendments, referendums, initiatives, and issues of a similar character, and for nonpartisan offices.

            "(3) Nothing in this section shall prohibit appointment, nomination or election to part time public office in a political subdivision of the state when the holding of such office is not incompatible with, nor substantially interferes with, the discharge of official duties in state employment.

            "(4) For persons employed in state agencies the operation of which is financed in total or in part by federal grant-in-aid funds political activity will be regulated by the rules and regulations of the United States civil service commission."

            In AGO 59-60 No. 171 [[to Sam Smith, State Representative on December 30, 1960]], we advised that this statute prohibits those state employees covered by the civil service act from serving either as precinct committeemen or as legislative district chairmen for a political party.  In another opinion, AGO 61-62 No. 46 [[to Washington Public Service Commission on July 6, 1961]], we said that it also bars such state enployees from engaging in the management of apartisan political campaign (including their own as candidates); however, it permits such participation in nonpartisan campaigns and it further allows the covered state employees themselves to be elected or appointed to part-time offices in a political subdivision under certain circumstances.7/   On the other hand,  [[Orig. Op. Page 12]] in AGO 61-62 No. 22 [[to Ann O'Donnell, State Representative on April 14, 1961]], we concluded that this subsection does not prohibit state civil service employees from serving as officers in such organizations as the Young Democrats or the Young Republicans; i.e., political clubs which are not subject to control or regulation by the official party organization.

            It is also important to note that this statute governing the political activities of state civil service employees is keyed to partisan political activities only; campaigns for nonpartisanoffices as well as those relating to constitutional amendments and likemeasures are expressly excluded from its prohibitions.

            B.Civil Service Employees of Higher Education Institutions

            Prior to 1969, the nonfaculty personnel of our state universities, colleges and community colleges were covered by chapter 41.06 RCW along with all other nonexempt state employees.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 13]]

            However, by its enactment of chapter 36, Laws of 1969, Ex. Sess., (now codified as chapter 28B.16 RCW) the legislature established a separate civil service system for these employees.  Although many of the provisions of this 1969 act are either identical or very similar to the earlier chapter 41.06, there is no provision in this more recent personnel act which is comparable to RCW 41.06.250,supra.

            Nevertheless, those employees now covered by the higher education personnel system are still limited with regard to political activities much as before.  This is because, as we understand it, all of the employing colleges and universities had, prior to 1969, adopted regulations governing this subject which were closely patterned after RCW 41.06.250.  By virtue of RCW 28B.16.210, the rules of each such institution will remain in effect until superseded by action of the higher education personnel board, and this new board has not yet enacted any rules relating to political activities.  We are attaching as Appendix C a copy of rule 15.1 from the University of Washington as an example and you will note that it adopts the language of RCW 41.06.250, verbatim.  We understand the applicable rules at the various other colleges and universities are quite similar if not identical.

            C.State or Local Governmental Employees Covered by the Federal "Hatch Act"

            Some state or local governmental employees, whether covered by a state civil service law or not, may, because of federal funding related to their positions, be governed by an act of Congress commonly known as the "Hatch Act,"8/ together with rules and regulations of the United States civil service commission.  Attached hereto, as Appendix D, you will find a copy of these governing regulations (5 C.F.R. § 151) which outline both permissible and prohibited activities with regard to the employees who are covered thereby.  See, also, subsection (4) of RCW 41.06.250, which refers to those state civil service employees who are also governed by the federal act and states that their ". . . political activity will be regulated by the rules and regulations of the United States civil service commission."9/

             [[Orig. Op. Page 14]] D. Employees of Local Governmental Entities

            In considering this category of public employees it is first to be noted that because of federal funding, certain of these employees (like their state counterparts) may also be covered by the Hatch Act, supra.  In addition there is in this area the very definite possibility of regulation by local charter or ordinance ‑ depending upon where the employees work and by whom they are employed.

            As far as state statutes are concerned, we first note three virtually identical statutes dealing, respectively, with city firemen, city police officers, and deputy county sheriffs who are covered by the civil service systems provided for in chapters 41.08, 41.12 and 41.14 RCW.

            (1)City Firemen

            In any city which has established a civil service system for its firemen under chapter 41.08 RCW, these personnel will be governed with regard to their political activities by RCW 41.08.160, which provides as follows:

            "No person holding any office, place, position or employment subject to civil service, is under any obligation to contribute to any political fund or to render any political service to any person or party whatsoever, and no person shall be removed, reduced in grade or salary, or otherwise prejudiced for refusing so to do.  No public officer, whether elected or appointed, shall discharge, promote, demote or in any manner change the official rank, employment or compensation of any person under civil service, or promise or threaten so to do, for giving or withholding, or neglecting to make any contribution of money, or services, or any other valuable thing, for any political purpose."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 15]]

            (2)City Police Officers

            An identical prohibition to that contained in RCW 41.08.160 appears in RCW 41.12.160 with regard to city police officers in cities which have established a civil service system for such personnel under chapter 41.12 RCW.

            (3)Deputy Sheriffs

            The personnel in a county sheriff's office who are covered by the civil service system established by chapter 41.14 RCW, are governed, in terms of their political activities by RCW 41.14.190, which provides:

            "No person holding any office, place, position, or employment subject to civil service, shall contribute to any political fund or render any political service to any person or party whatsoever, and no person shall be removed, reduced in grade or salary, or otherwise prejudiced for refusing so to do.  No public officer, whether elected or appointed, shall discharge, promote, demote, or in any manner change the official rank, employment, or compensation of any person under civil service or promise or threaten so to do for giving or withholding, or neglecting to make any contribution of money, or service, or any other valuable thing, for any political purpose."

            The following significant difference between the two identical statutes relating to firemen and police officers and the third relating to deputy sheriffs should be noted:  While both RCW 41.08.160 and RCW 41.12.160 make it clear that neither of the two categories of municipal employees who are covered by these statutes shall be under anyobligation to contribute to any political fund or to render political services to any person or party, neither of these statutes purport to prohibitvoluntary contributions or services; however, because of a difference in wording which may not be readily apparent upon a casual reading, the statute relating to deputy sheriffs, RCW 41.14.190, does prohibit both involuntary and voluntary political contributions or services.

            Also to be noted under this heading is RCW 35.17.160, which covers appointive officers or employees of cities operating  [[Orig. Op. Page 16]] under the commission form of government and provides that:

            "Any appointive officer or employee of the city who in any manner exerts his influence to induce other officers or employees of the city to favor any particular candidate for any city office or who contributes anything in any way to any person for election purposes shall be discharged by the commission."

            Finally, see RCW 38.32.120, relating to local civil defense organizations, which states that:

            "No organization for civil defense established under the authority of this chapter shall participate in any form of political activity, nor shall it be employed directly or indirectly for political purposes."

            E.Other State or Local Governmental Employees

            The final category of public employees to be noted includes all of those who are not covered by any of the foregoing state or federal laws or regulations ‑ or by any applicable local governmental charter or ordinance provisions or regulations.  In the case of these employees, there are no legal impediments to their participation in any of the sorts of political activity, either partisan or nonpartisan, to which you have referred in your request for our opinion on this subject.  We underscore "legal" because, of course, these personnel serving largely at the discretion of their respective appointing authorities may well be required by reason of internal policy established by their employers to refrain from certain designated types of political activity.

            IV.Certain Campaign Contributions

            In closing we should like to bring to your attention two statutes dealing with the financing of political campaigns which should be kept in mind by any candidates for partisan political office in this state.  The first of these is subsection (1) of RCW 41.06.250, supra.  Although this provision is contained in our state employees' civil service law we omitted it from the quotation of RCW 41.06.250 when we  [[Orig. Op. Page 17]] were considering this statute from the standpoint of that category of employees only, for this subsection has a much broader application; it reads as follows:

            "(1) Solicitation for or payment to any partisan, political organization or for any partisan, political purpose of any compulsory assessment or involuntary contribution is prohibited.  No person shall solicit on state property any contribution to be used for partisan, political purposes."

            In an opinion dated September 16, 1968, to State Senator R. Frank Atwood, copy enclosed, we advised that this statute prohibits any person from soliciting on state property any contribution to be used for partisan political purposes ‑ irrespective of whether either the solicitor or the person being solicited is a state civil service employee.

            The other statute in this area which we would point out is RCW 43.30.110, prohibiting contributions in aid of political parties or candidates by insurers or fraternal benefit societies as follows:

            "(1) No insurer or fraternal benefit society doing business in this state shall directly or indirectly pay or use, or offer, consent or agree to pay or use any money or thing of value for or in aid of any political party; nor for or in aid of any candidate for political office, nor for the nomination for such office; nor for reimbursement or indemnification of any person for money or property so used.

            "(2) Any individual who violates any provision of this section, or who participates in, aids, abets, advises, or consents to any such violation, or who solicits or knowingly receives any money or thing of value in violation of this section, shall be guilty of a gross misdemeanor and shall be liable  [[Orig. Op. Page 18]] to the insurer or society for the amount so contributed or received."

            This completes our resume of the laws governing those areas of political campaign activities which you asked us to review.  It is hoped that the foregoing will be of some assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/Copies of this and other prior opinions cited herein are attached hereto as Appendix A.

2/See, United States Constitution, Amendment I, applicable to the states through the due process clause of Amendment XIV.  Several of these recent court decisions are discussed in AGO 65-66 No. 103 [[to Ray Olsen, State Representative on August 18, 1966]], relating to certain then proposed regulations of the state liquor control board regarding the activities of distillery representatives, at pp. 17-23.

3/Moreover, in addition to these statutory criminal restraints, it should be understood that the activities of any persons entering upon, or damaging the property of others without their consent will also be subject to the common-law principles of trespass and the possibility of civil liability for damages resulting therefrom.

4/We understand that informational maps regarding those highways which currently fall within the purview of chapter 47.42 RCW may be obtained from the department of highways.

5/In connection with this legislation it is also to be noted that RCW 47.42.070, a part of the highway advertising act of 1961 which was left intact by the 1971 act, provides that:

           "Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to permit a person to erect or maintain any sign that is otherwise prohibited by statute or by the resolution or ordinance of any county, city, or town of the state of Washington."

            See, again, ourcaveat regarding the possibility of local ordinances, above.

6/See, RCW 41.06.070 for a listing of those categories of state employees who are excluded from this civil service system; all not thus excluded are covered.

7/Insofar as AGO 61-62 No. 46 further concluded that this provision applies even in the case of a civil service employee who has taken a leave of absence without pay, it appears no longer to be correct.  See,Maxie v. Dept. of Public Assistance, Personnel Board Docket No. 113 (1966), wherein the state personnel board made reference to another statute, RCW 41.04.120, and concluded as follows:

            "In order for RCW 41.04.120 to have effect together with RCW 41.06.250 (2), state employees must be entitled to leaves of absence without pay to run for political office under reasonable conditions and circumstances similar to those considered when granting all other leaves of absence in accordance with MSR 356.12.130."

            RCW 41.04.120, thus relied upon, provides that:

            "Any civil service employee of the state of Washington or of any political subdivision thereof who is on leave of absence by reason of having been elected or appointed to an elective office shall be preserved in his civil service status, his seniority, rank and retirement rights so long as he regularly continues to make the usual contribution incident to the retention of such beneficial rights as if he were not on leave of absence:  Provided, That such contributions being made shall be based on the rank at the time of taking such leave of absence."

8/80 Stat. 403, now codified as 5 U.S.C. §§ 1501-1508.

9/While beyond the scope of your specific request, we note that by virtue of the Hatch Act, supra, the political activity of most federal employees is also governed by the rules and regulations of the United States Civil Service Commission.  We attach as Appendix E the current regulations governing the political activity of federal employees.