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Office of Internal Audit Political Use

The Ethics in Public Service Act Washington state ethics law prohibits the use, or authorization for use, of state resources, “…for the purpose of assisting a campaign for election of a person to an office or for the promotion of or opposition to a ballot proposition… Facilities of an agency include, but are not limited to, use of stationery, postage, machines, and equipment, use of state employees of the agency during working hours, vehicles, office space, publications of the agency, and clientele lists of persons served by the agency.” (RCW 42.52.180(1))

Lobbying is specifically called out in separate legislation. Lobbying is defined in RCW 42.17A.005(30) as:  “. . . attempting to influence the passage or defeat of any legislation by the legislature of the state of Washington, or the adoption or rejection of any rule, standard, rate, or other legislative enactment of any state agency under the state Administrative Procedure Act, chapter 34.05 RCW. Neither lobby nor lobbying includes an association’s or other organization’s act of communicating with the members of that association or organization.”

The Ethics in Public Service Act, RCW 42.52, does not prohibit you from lobbying or supporting a campaign as a private citizen. If you participate in this activity the laws simply require you do so on your own time, using your own resources and ensure it is clear you are not speaking on behalf of WSU. Use of state resources to support or oppose candidates or ballot measures is prohibited for these efforts. State resources include, but are not limited to, your office and office equipment, computing devices and network, stationary and postage, state phone, your time and time of other staff during working hours.

While RCWs and WACs are the foremost rules regarding ethical conduct, following are a few recommendations to help you make good decisions this and all campaign seasons: 

  • De minimis use exceptions do not apply to political activities. This means that even a brief political email or phone call on state time or with state equipment or resources is prohibited. If you want to support a position or candidate – do not email from WSU email account, network or through private account on WSU computer with messaging that communicates or implies support (or opposition). Even one email is enough for a violation.
  • Individuals with the authority over employees (such as supervisors) or with control over facilities, have a duty to halt employee use of state resources for political activities. Knowing acquiescence in such use is itself a violation of the Ethics Act.
  • If you send email related to a candidate for office or ballot proposition, send it from your home email address, from your home computer, on your own time. Also, do not send political endorsements or other campaign materials to other employees’ state (WSU) email accounts – even if sent from your personal email account.
  • If you make phone calls related to political activities, make them on your personal phone on your own time.
  • Make sure your personal campaign activities do not interfere with your official duties or the official duties of any other state employee. Using work hours (yours or others at your direction) to solicit signatures for ballot propositions, to raise funds for or against such propositions, or to organize campaigns for or against such opposition is prohibited.

Workplace displays of support or opposition of political candidates and ballot proposition should not be excessive and may be prohibited:

  • Displaying political material in or on publicly owned vehicles is prohibited.
  • Prudence should apply in displaying campaign material on publicly owned or operated premises, other than designated open/public spaces. Wearing campaign buttons on clothing is a personal expression and does not violate the Ethics in Public Service Act. The use of personally assigned space at a workstation probably meets the same requirement. The answer might be different if an employee were using publicly visible space, such as a wall or reception desk, which could leave the impression that the agency supports a campaign.

There are limited activities excluded from these prohibitions:

  • Activities that are the normal and regular conduct of your office.
  • A statement by an elected official in an open press conference, in response to a specific inquiry or incidental remarks in an official communication or for which no actual, measurable expenditure of public funds is made.
  • De minimis use of public facilities by an elected official incidental to the preparation or delivery of permissible communications.

Distribution of news articles or editorials: the University is ordinarily free to distribute press clippings that relate to its mission. However, while an election is pending or an initiative is being circulated for signature, the University may distribute only those newspaper articles and editorials that do not tend to support or oppose a candidate for public office, or a ballot initiative, or referendum.

Generally speaking, administrators are in the public eye and should be cautious about wearing political information or displaying political information in or around their offices. A primary concern is the avoidance of situations where it might appear that an employee is speaking on behalf of the University.

Compliance with the state ethics law is the personal responsibility of each state employee. Additional regulations related to the use of public resources for supporting political activity may be found in BPPM 60.90, BPPM 10.21, RCW 42.52.160, WAC 292-110-010, and WAC 292-110-020 (definition of ‘working hours’).