Elected vs. Appointed vs. Acting PCOs
PCOs & RCWs
As most of you should be aware, the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) has statutes that govern the political organizations. While the state party could legally challenge these rules, the Charter of the Democratic Party (Article V.A.1) provides that:
“State laws relating to Party operations shall be observed unless in conflict with this Charter and other provisions adopted pursuant to this Charter.”
As a result it is important to be familiar with these statutes which are located in Chapter 29A.80 which you can read here:
In this article we'll discuss those that apply to PCOs. We’ll start with the general purpose of the RCWs that cover political parties, then go on to the sections on PCO elections, eligibility, and finish up with handling of vacancies.
I am going to preface this article with the statement that I am not a lawyer and any information here that wades into the legal realm is my personal interpretation based upon research and conversations with people far more experienced than myself and should not be taken as legal advice. If you have specific legal concerns, please consult a licensed attorney.
29A.80.010 - Rule-making Authority
"Each political party organization may adopt rules governing its own organization and the nonstatutory functions of that organization."
RCW 29A.80.010 acknowledges that our organizations can make whatever rules we want surrounding our governance and political operations, including our use of PCOs, so long as those rules don’t conflict with statutes that govern their statutory functions. Let’s first consider what these functions are and determine how they apply to PCOs.
Statutory Functions: What are they?
The "statutory functions" of a PCO surround the filling of legislative vacancies. In 1956 Washington voters amended our state Constitution so as to limit the authority of government officials to fill vacancies in partisan office by requiring such appointments to be made from lists provided by the political party whose member held the office now vacant. In light of that amendment the government has a legitimate interest in being able to determine the spokesperson for the political party who will determine the list. Similarly, because the State Legislature requires that presidential electors be nominated by political parties, it also has the right to be sure it is receiving nominations from the “real” party and not some organization with a similar name. The positions of PCO, the organization of PCOs into county central committees and the ongoing existence of what is referred to in our Party’s Charter as the “Statutory State Committee” are critical to these legitimate government interests.
Nonstatutory Functions: Party Functions
Simply put, “nonstatutory functions” are all political operations. As Chairs, our interactions with PCOs center around the party functions of a PCO. One example is that we in the Democratic Party task PCOs with doorbelling their precincts, helping get out the vote, and give them access to resources like VoteBuilder. Another is voting for leadership and representatives in our local party organizations or on endorsements. All of these party functions are able to be regulated by our respective organization's bylaws and other rules.
RCW 29A.80.051 – Precinct Committee Officer – Election – Term
“The statutory requirements for filing as a candidate at the primaries apply to candidates for precinct committee officer. The office must be voted upon at the primaries, and the names of all candidates in contested races must appear under the proper party and office designations on the ballot for the primary for each even-numbered year. The candidate receiving the highest number of votes will be declared elected. The term of office of precinct committee officer is two years, commencing the first day of December following the primary.”
This section is pretty self explanatory. PCOs are elected every two years and their term begins on December 1st of the year of their election. Unlike most candidates, PCOs are not part of the top-two primary where the top two vote getters move on to the general election to be voted on. Instead, PCOs are elected at the primary stage. If they are unopposed when filing closes, their election is automatic.
RCW 29A.80.041 - Precinct Committee Officer, Eligibility
"Any member of a major political party who is a registered voter in the precinct may file his or her declaration of candidacy as prescribed under RCW 29A.24.031 with the county auditor for the office of precinct committee officer of his or her party in that precinct. When elected at the primary, the precinct committee officer shall serve so long as the committee officer remains an eligible voter in that precinct."
The qualifications for a PCO to be elected are defined here. The candidate must be a registered voter in the precinct and a member of the party which they seek to represent. Since the democratic party defines a member as anyone willing to support the goals and principles of the Party as expressed in its Charter and to be known as a Democrat, party membership is quite open. What about the first qualification? What qualifies as "a registered voter in the precinct"?
Legally, a voter must be registered to vote in the precinct in which they reside. “Residency” is not always obvious. A person’s residence is the last place at which they were both physically present and simultaneously had an intent to make the place their permanent home. So, for example, college students may be legitimately registered in their parent’s precinct even though they “live” elsewhere most of the year. Voters in military service may legitimately maintain their registration in precincts in which they have not “lived” for years because they have also not found a new place to call home while in service of our country. Because mere absence from a precinct does not necessarily mean a person no longer resides in the precinct before declaring a precinct vacant it is advisable to either have a written resignation from the former PCO or to determine that the former PCO has registered in another location (since the new registration is itself an admission that residency has changed).
Section 29A.80.031 - Precinct Committee Officer (– Vacancies)
"If a vacancy occurs in the office of precinct committee officer by reason of death, resignation, or disqualification of the incumbent, or because of failure to elect, the respective county chair of the county central committee shall fill the vacancy by appointment. However, in a legislative district having a majority of its precincts in a county with a population of one million or more, the appointment may be made only upon the recommendation of the legislative district chair. The person so appointed must have the same qualifications as candidates when filing for election to the office for that precinct. When a vacancy in the office of precinct committee officer exists because of failure to elect at a state primary, the vacancy may not be filled until after the organization meeting of the county central committee and the new county chair has been selected as provided by RCW 29A.80.030."
This section should be entitled: "Precinct Committee Officer, Vacancies" and covers the appointment of individuals as PCOs. There are a few elements we'll cover.
Causes of Vacancy
A vacancy can occur for a number of reasons. The most common reason is that no one files to run for PCO in the election in a precinct. Other reasons include death and resignation, which are pretty straight forward. Because there are statutory rights at play, it is highly advisable for any resignation to be made in writing and signed. This prevents someone challenging the validity of their resignation should a legislative vacancy occur and they wish to participate after resigning. Disqualification of the incumbent may occur if the PCO moves out of their precinct, thus not being qualified under 29A.80.041 to serve as the PCO for that precinct. But this is not always true, as noted above. The best way to check if someone is disqualified due to residency is to check their voter registration in VoteBuilder or on the Secretary of State's "My Vote" website.
Who Appoints People to Vacancies?
This section addresses the appointment of individuals to fill vacancies in precincts without PCOs. The county chair is the person who is responsible for appointing these PCOs. Only in counties with a population over one million must the legislative district chair make a formal recommendation to make an appointment valid. Currently, only King County has a population over one million.
Does this mean that chairs of all the other counties should not consult the legislative district chair before making appointments? Clearly this would depend on the county. Some of our counties are contained inside the boundaries of a large rural legislative district. In these counties, the county chair is the most local party leader and most likely to be familiar with the persons seeking appointment as PCO and the legislative district chair may be hundreds of miles away. In such a scenario, there will likely be no opposition from the legislative district chair, though it is good for these county chairs to have a conversation around PCO appointments with the legislative district chair at the beginning of their terms to set expectations and avoid any organizational friction.
Other counties, such as Snohomish for instance, have multiple legislative districts partially or completely within their boundaries. In these counties, the legislative district chair is the party leader most familiar with the candidate and the person that will be directly responsible for managing that person if they are appointed as PCO. While a county chair has the statutory authority to appoint the PCO without the recommendation of the legislative district chair, it is highly advisable to obtain the recommendation of the legislative district chair before making any appointment. If the legislative district chair is opposed to the appointment, county chairs are encouraged to speak with the legislative district chair and the candidate seeking appointment to address any concerns and work to secure the recommendation of the legislative district chair before proceeding. This will ensure that any concerns are addressed and that any appointments will proceed smoothly and not create any unnecessary problems in the legislative district's organization.
Is an Appointed PCO Different from an Elected PCO?
In the statutory context, there is no distinction between an "Elected PCO" and an "Appointed PCO." As with any other position once the appointment has been completed the new office holder has all the rights and obligations of all others holding similar offices. If a person is appointed to fill a vacancy, that person is a PCO for the purposes of the statutory functions of PCOs, just as a person appointed to fill a legislative vacancy isn't treated any differently under the law after being appointed as a legislator that was elected.
In our Local Party Organizations, we should take the same view. Having rules that apply differently depending on the method that a PCO used to attain their position creates artificial divisions that are rarely if ever necessary and often result in confusion and friction. If your organization has rules that treat PCOs that were elected differently from those that are appointed, have a discussion over whether or not these rules have a valid justification and consider removing them to avoid confusion and ensure equity.
There are two instances in the statutes when a PCO cannot be appointed to fill a vacancy: 1) When the PCO isn't validly registered to vote in the precinct. 2) In the time period between the failure to elect a PCO for a precinct and the election of a new county chair at the subsequent reorg. The first condition is self-explanatory. The second condition, however, has caused much confusion.
The intent of the restriction on appointing PCOs after the primary is to prevent a county chair from stacking the deck after the primary to affect the voting body in reorg. However, a chair can continue to fill vacancies in the current term and these appointees would not be able to vote in reorg. Let’s use 2016 as an example and consider the example of “Terry the County Chair”:
Chair Terry was elected as a PCO in the 2014 primary and chair of their county at the December 2014 reorg. It is now August of 2016 and a new batch of PCOs have just been elected. In Terry’s county, the “Blue Wave” precinct is vacant and Terry wants to make sure that the 2016 Get-Out-The-Vote effort is fully staffed. A new volunteer that lives in Blue Wave precinct but they didn’t file for PCO in time and the precinct is vacant. Terry can appoint them as a PCO to serve the current term, expiring in December 2016, but RCW 29A.80.031 prevents Terry from appointing the volunteer to fill the 2017-2018 term. Later, once reorg is complete, Terry or the newly elected county chair can appoint the volunteer to fill the 2017-2018 vacancy.
Now that we’ve clarified appointing PCOs that live in their precincts, how do we handle vacant precincts when we can’t find a volunteer that resides in the precinct?
Acting as a PCO
As a party, we need to have as many boots on the ground to cover as many precincts as possible when getting out the vote and canvassing. To address the need for the party to have the ability to assign a person to fulfill the party duties of a PCO when it is not possible to have an PCO elected or appointed to a precinct, it created the title of "Acting PCO". An Acting PCO is a person who legally is ineligible to be appointed or elected to a precinct, but whom the party wants to assign the nonstatutory functions for a precinct. The primary responsibility of an Acting PCO is to assist in locating and recruiting an activist in an unrepresented precinct. While recruiting, an Acting PCO has all the duties of a PCO without all of the rights of a PCO.
Rules for Acting PCOs
In the context of our party rules, people acting as a PCO for a precinct do not have the same rights as someone who was elected or appointed as a PCO under the statutes we've discussed, unless specifically addressed in a particular organization's rules and permitted by our Charter. If your organization has rules that codify the position of Acting PCO and has rules that differentiate them from statutory PCOs, have a discussion over whether or not these rules have a valid justification.
The most common justification is to prevent a single precinct from having more voice than others in matters that should have equity among the precincts. For example, if your organization only allows PCOs to vote in endorsements, allowing Acting PCOs the right to vote as well may allow one precinct to stack the deck to endorse candidates that are inside or close to that precinct and drown out the voice of the other precincts. As with any rule evaluation, ask yourself if the rule prevents abuse. If so, it may be advisable to maintain. If not, it may be advisable to remove the rule.