How the Washington state voter guide became a 110-year democratic tradition

A stack of past Thurston County voter guides. (Laurel Demkovich / Washington State Standard)

Starting next week, many Washington counties will send out voter guides for the state’s Aug. 6 primary.

The sometimes 100-plus-page pamphlets are the pride and joy of many Washington election officials, providing free information on candidates, ballot measures and election resources directly to voters’ mailboxes.

Though what’s in the booklet, how much it costs and who sends it out has changed since the first one was delivered 110 years ago, the goal is the same: to inform voters.

“This is a really important piece of literature for candidates and voters,” Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall told the Standard.

Over a century of voter education


The 1914 voters’ pamphlet. (Courtesy of the Secretary of State’s Office)

As part of a constitutional amendment setting up Washington’s referenda and initiative process, state voters in 1912 also approved requirements for an accompanying pamphlet to explain measures appearing on the ballot.

The original language called on the Legislature to provide “methods of publicity” for all laws or constitutional amendments referred to voters for final approval. That publicity was required to have arguments for and against and to be delivered to voters 50 days before the election.

The Legislature passed a law a year later setting up the process for how the secretary of state would publish and distribute the pamphlets.

The first one went out in 1914 with 63 pages. It included information on measures to ban liquor, to employ prisoners on highway projects, and to require businesses to repay medical bills for workers in “extra-hazardous” jobs.

More than a century after the first edition, the secretary of state’s office produces guides for all statewide elections, such as the one this November. For others, including primaries and local odd-year races, county auditors are in charge of producing and distributing the pamphlet.

Over the years, dozens of different versions of the guide have hit voters’ kitchen tables. There are many covers decorated with students’ designs, featuring American flags, bald eagles and the Statue of Liberty. There’s the 1991 edition celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. And, of course, the most recent green design with the state seal.

State law requires the guides to include statements from candidates in federal, statewide and local races as well as their photos and contact information if submitted.

They must also include arguments for and against ballot measures and other useful information to voters, such as important deadlines and how to return a ballot.

Hall said Thurston County’s primary guide will also include information on the security of the elections process, maps showing the locations of county election offices and reminders for how to fix signature problems on a completed ballot.

“We use them as best we can to build trust,” she said.

Heavy lift

For the local pamphlets, county elections workers must read every candidate’s statement to check that they meet ethical guidelines. The statements must only be used to promote the candidate running and cannot be used to attack an opponent.

If the statements don’t meet the guidelines, counties can reject them and ask for a rewrite, Hall said.

Under current law, the state cannot reject statements in the statewide guide, except in rare circumstances.

County auditors are trying to get the state to align its requirements more closely with local ones, Hall said, but the Legislature has not approved any laws to do so, in part because of concerns over limiting free speech.

The statements can have shortcomings. Just because elections officials read each one before publishing the guides, it doesn’t mean they’re grammatically correct, or even factual.

Elections officials don’t edit, Hall said. They only check to make sure the statements follow ethics guidelines.

Washington does allow candidates to sue opponents over false statements in the statewide voter guide, but the statement must be defamatory to be removed.

All this voter education has a price. In Thurston County, for example, producing around 144,000 August primary guides will cost about $45,000, though some of that can be reimbursed by the state. The county’s primary guide is 103 pages.

To send out the November statewide guide, the cost is estimated to be between $1.2 million and $1.5 million, according to Derrick Nunnally, spokesman for the secretary of state’s office. The exact price will depend on printing costs.

In California, the cost of a 112-page March voter guide was $13.2 million, CalMatters reported in May. That’s about 10 times the estimated cost of Washington’s statewide guide this year. California does have four to five times as many voters as Washington.

Washington produces dozens of different versions of its guide based on county, language and accessibility. In 2020, there were 32 variations. The state also compiles all information in an online voter guide at


What to know about Washington’s 2024 August primary

When will ballots be delivered?

Ballots will be mailed out before July 19, the start of the state’s 18-day voting period

When are ballots due?

Ballots must be postmarked or in official drop boxes by 8 p.m. on Aug. 6.

Where can I drop off my ballot?

Ballots can be left at an official drop box, sent in the mail or delivered in person at a county voting center. Voters who need assistance can also go to a county voting center to vote in person by 8 p.m. on Election Day. The state’s map of drop box and voting center locations can be found here.

Can I still register to vote?

Yes. Voters can register online or by mail up until July 29. Those wishing to register after that day can do so in person at a voting center up until 8 p.m. on Election Day. A full list of election year dates and deadlines can be found here.

Who’s on my ballot?

There are 654 races across the state this August. The Washington Office of the Secretary of State and the county auditors compile voter guides for every district. Visit for a personalized guide to what’s on your ballot.

When will results be posted?

Results will vary by county, but most begin posting around 8:15 p.m. on election night, though votes are tallied as they come in, meaning results can change in the days following the election. County canvassing boards certify the results by Aug. 20, and the secretary of state certifies the results by Aug. 23. For statewide results and links to county results, visit

by Laurel Demkovich, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and X.

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