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In the flurry of winning an election, taking the oath of office may seem like a back burner issue. But ensuring that the oath is administered correctly is essential for starting a term of office on the right foot. Recall that one misplaced word led to President Obama taking his first oath twice out of an abundance of caution.[i]
Newly-elected officials for counties, cities, towns, and most special purpose districts must be both elected and qualified to assume office.[ii] The final step in qualifying is taking the oath of office.[iii] Generally, new terms commence on January 1 following the election. The oath can be administered eithe r up to ten days prior to the date of assuming office or at the last regular meeting of the applicable governing body before the newly-elected official begins the tenure.[iv] If the oath is taken prior to January 1, the official begins his or her term at 12:01 a.m. on January 1. However, as a practical matter, some elected officials take the oath at the start of the first meeting of the governing body in the new year, in which case the official assumes the office at that time.
The procedure is slightly different for those elected to succeed an official appointed to fill a vacancy. The question becomes which official has authority during the “short term” between the election and the start of the full term.[v] If elected to a nonpartisan position (such as a special purpose district commissioner), the newly-elected official begins the term immediately upon election and qualification, and serves the remainder of the short term.[vi] Since taking the oath is required for qualification, this means that the new official must take the oath at the beginning of both the short and full term. A similar process governs partisan county elective office.[vii]
Oaths can be administered by any officer or authorized notary public, at no charge.[viii] There is no magic language, but the oath must at least include an affirmation that the official will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties of the office to the best of his or her ability.[ix] Governing bodies may require their own specific oath language. City, town, and county elected officials must record their sworn and signed oaths of office with the county auditor.[x] For special purpose districts, whether the oath of office must be recorded with the county auditor varies depending on the governing statute. For example, fire district commissioners must record their oaths of office with the auditor of the county in which all or the largest portion of their district is located.[xi] By contrast, the water-sewer district election chapter is silent regarding whether oaths must be recorded.[xii] Special purpose districts that do not have express statutory direction on this issue should contact their county auditor for guidance.
Following these rules will help ensure that each elected official begins the term in compliance with the many electoral statutes. Local governments should implement proper oath of office procedures so that the newly elected officials’ acts on behalf of the agency are not subject to challenge.
[i] Jeff Mason, Obama takes oath again after inauguration mistake, Reuters, Jan. 21, 2009, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-obama-oath/obama-takes-oath-again-after-inauguration-mistake-idUSTRE50L09A20090122
[ii] RCW 29A.60.280(2).
[iii] RCW 29A.60.280(3).
[iv] RCW 29A.60.280(2), (3)(a)-(b).
[v] RCW 29A.04.169.
[vi] RCW 42.12.070(6).
[vii] RCW 42.12.040.
[viii] RCW 29A.04.133(3).
[x] E.g., RCW 35A.12.080 (cities); RCW 36.16.060 (counties); RCW 35.27.120 (towns).
[xi] RCW 52.14.070.
[xii] See RCW 57.12.030.