Local Government 101 – A User Guide To Passing Laws in Washington State

Like our local island and county politics, state-level politics in Washington are increasingly impactful and important to post-pandemic life.

In our last Government 101 article we discussed all the ways the state’s structure, its institutions, and representatives function. Now we’re going to focus on how legislation is formed in Washington State – either through the Legislature, or by citizen-led avenues away from Olympia.

In the image above, you can follow the simplified version of the legislative path, but below we will take a more detailed step-by-step look at both processes, and how you can be involved in shaping the future of our state.

In Washington, there are two paths to getting a law passed, updated, or revoked – via the passage of bills through the twin chambers of the Washington state legislature, or via the twin paths available to all resident citizens – state initiatives and referendums.


1. The Legislative Bill Process

How A Bill Becomes Law in Washington State
How A Bill Becomes Law from the Washington State Legislature’s Civic Education Materials

Bills are simply introduced by members in either chamber of the legislature – either the Senate or House of Representatives, but their path to becoming law is often arduous and challenging. In fact, the majority of introduced bills at each legislative session (85%) do not become law, and many of the bills that are enacted take several sessions and several years before successful passage. Here are the steps each bill must go through in the legislature:

  1. Once introduced in the House or Senate (first reading), bills are referred to a committee within that chamber for hearing. The committee chair selects if/when that bill will be formally taken up by the committee, providing an initial test for a bill to pass.
  2. If/when taken up by the committee, its members study each introduced bill through work sessions, public hearings and executive session. Members of the electorate can also share ideas, feedback, and information via those public hearings, or by meeting with their elected representatives.
  3. During this process, a bill report is developed by staff. The bill report includes a legislative history of the bill, background on the issue, summary of legislation, names of those testifying on the bill’s behalf as well as a summary of those for and against, and financial impact guidance from the Finance (House) or Ways and Means (Senate) committees.
  4. The committee can then pass, reject, or take no action on the bill. To provide a sense of urgency, at the start of the session all bills are given cutoff dates when they have to be reported out of committee and eligible for further consideration by the Legislature.
  5. If passed by majority committee vote, the full report on the bill is then read in open session of the originating chamber (House or Senate) and the bill is referred to the Rules Committee of that chamber.
  6. Within the Rules committee, the majority party leadership in both chambers review the bills and decide which will move forward. The decision can be based on results from a party caucus or as simply as individual members advocating for/against  legislation they feel strongly about. The Rules Committees are then responsible for scheduling bills for a second reading on the calendar for debate with the entire body of each house.
  7. If the bill passes to second reading, it is then subject to debate by the House/Senate bodies, and potential amendments to the original bill suggested, voted upon and added if successful, before being placed on a third reading calendar for final passage.
  8. Between the second and third readings, the remaining bills, if amendments have been made, get engrossed (incorporating those amendments into the original bill) so that the next house receives one document to vote on.
  9. At the third reading of a bill, a roll call vote is taken (where all members are asked their vote). If it is passed by a majority of votes, the bill then proceeds to the next house.
  10. When a bill moves to the next chamber (House or Senate), it goes through the same procedure. If amendments are made in the other house, the bill goes back to the first house to approve the changes.
  11. When the bill is accepted in both houses, it’s signed by the respective leaders of each house and sent to the governor.
  12. The governor can then sign the bill into law, or can choose to veto all, or part of the he bill. If the Governor fails to act on the bill, it may become law without a signature.
  13. Each bill can fail at the committee, floor, second chamber, or gubernatorial stage, and must pass them all to become law.

If that seems like a lot of stages to pass, it is – and this is a good moment to remember that less than 15% of the bills introduced in any given  session will actually pass into law (though the other 85% do get more chances to do so).

The bills that do not pass during a long legislative session are retained for the next short session. If the bill does not make it through the process by the end of the two-year cycle, it is considered “dead”, though it can still be essentially re-introduced to begin a new 2-year cycle afresh.

Got it? Good. OK, on to the second path to legislative action…


2. Citizen-Led Legislation

Washington's Citizen Initiative Process At Work for I-172 in 1948. Image courtesy Washington State Archives + Merle Junk
Washington’s Citizen Initiative Process At Work for I-172 in 1948. Image courtesy Washington State Archives + Merle Junk

The second – and very important way – laws are made in Washington state involves citizen-led initiatives and referendums. Back in 1912, Washington was among the first states to adopt citizen-led initiatives and referendums, in order to better ensure citizens have the right to make and remake their laws, and also provide checks and balances to the decisions made in the Legislature.

Any registered voter, acting individually or on behalf of an organization, may propose legislation to create a new state law, or to amend or repeal an existing state law.

The process has shown to be highly effective in protecting the electorate’s interests. In many instances (such as the state’s public disclosure laws), Washington’s landmark legislation has not come directly from the legislature, but rather from a citizen-driven process.

As with bills in the legislature, this path is an uphill battle, as it requires the engaged citizen to gather a substantial number of petition signatures from registered voters in order to certify a measure, and formally move it along to a public ballot or over to the Legislature for consideration. That number is based on a percentage of the total votes cast in the most-recent election of the Washington State Governor. As of 2021, this number was approximately 324,000 for an initiative, or 162,000 for a referendum.

Best practice is to actually gather 15-20% MORE signatures than the minimum, due to that many signatures being invalidated on average due to duplication and non-registration of eligible voters.

Up for the challenge? It all begins very simply, with an idea to change Washington for the better. Once you have that, here’s a quick run down of the process with what you need to know for each of the two options, an initiative, or a referendum:

  1. Initiative Process: In this option, the electorate can initiate legislation to be placed directly on the people’s ballot, or submit the proposed law to the Legislature at its regular session. It begins with the crafting a 10-word title and a 30-word summary of any proposed measure.
    • To the People – Submitted via the office of the Secretary of State for a vote at the next state general election. If accompanied by the appropriate number of petition signature, it is placed on a ballot, and requires a simple majority of voter approval to become law (with the exception of gambling or lottery measures which require 60% approval). Filing starts in late December or early January with signature petition sheets due in July and costs just a $5 administrative fee.
    • To the Legislature – If accompanied by the appropriate number of petition signature, submitted to the legislature at the start of regular session each January. Once submitted, representatives must take one of three actions:
      • Adopt the initiative as proposed and it becomes law without a vote
      • Reject or refuse to act on proposed initiative and it must be placed on the ballot at the next state general election;
      • Propose a different measure dealing with the same subject and both measures must be put on the ballot. Filing starts in early March with signatures due in early January.
    • Who can do this? Any registered voter acting individually or on behalf of an organization may propose legislation to create new state law or amend or repeal an existing law.
  • Referendum Process: The primary purpose of the referendum is to give voters an opportunity to approve or reject laws either
    proposed or enacted by the Legislature. This process can occur in two ways – through the electorate or the Legislature – and occur in two forms by way of Referendum Measures or Referendum Bills. In both cases the process allows citizens petitions to refer acts of the Legislature to the ballot before they become law or permits the Legislature to refer proposed legislation to the electorate for approval or rejection

    • Referendum Measures: Laws recently passed by the Legislature and placed on the ballot by referendum petition. It can be filed for all or part of the law.
    • Referendum Bills: Are proposed laws referred to the voters by the Legislature
    • Who Can Do This? Any registered voter, acting individually or on behalf of an organization, may by petition demand a law be passed by the Legislature be referred to the voters prior to going into effect. Referendum measures may be filed within 90 days after the Legislature has passed the law.
    • How You Can Do This? You’ll need to file the Referendum within 90 days and submit a printed or typewritten copy of the law or part of the law on which a referendum is desired. A signed affidavit from each sponsor declaring they are a registered voter in Washington state. There is a filing fee of $5. Referendum measures cannot be filed online, so you’ll need to contact the Office of the Secretary of State for filing instructions.
    • In both cases the process allows citizens petitions to refer acts of the Legislature to the ballot before they become law or permits the Legislature to refer proposed legislation to the electorate for approval or rejection


How Can You Get Involved?

Autism Speaks Legislative Day in Olympia 2023. Image courtesy of Autism Speaks
Autism Speaks Legislative Day in Olympia 2023. Image courtesy of Autism Speaks

Communicate with your Legislator (see the Learn More section below to get specific contact details):

    • Attend a local meeting
    • Make an appointment to meet in Olympia
    • Send an email
    • Make a phone call

Participate in a Committee Hearing:

  1. Register your interest with your representative
  2. Have your position on a Bill Publicly Noted for the Legislative Record via online sign in
  3. Submit Written Testimony
  4. Testify in person at the legislature

Create a Citizen Initiative or Referendum:

See above, or the entirety of the Secretary of State’s full guide to both



Across the state, Washington has appointed representatives and built establishments that develop policy and oversee the laws created to try and solve the challenges of modern life in the PNW. The process by which they introduce, study, report, debate, amend, and potentially pass bills is multi-staged and complicated, but deliberately so to be a well-considered systemic attempt to make laws for the people, by the people’s elected representatives.

It is also important to remember that, in Washington State, there has also been a parallel process created, securing the rights of citizens to make and remake their laws, and to provide a check over the decisions of their Legislature. All you need to get involved is an idea, five dollars, proof that you are a registered member of the state electorate, and a lot of dedication.


Learn More:


This series of Local Government 101 articles is designed to demystify the political bodies and processes here in Washington state, in Kitsap County, and on Bainbridge Island. Stay tuned for more installments…