Local Government 101 – The Washington State Legislature

How the House, Senate, Governor, Supreme Court + Citizens work together to govern our state 

Like our local island and county politics, state-level politics in Washington are increasingly impactful and important to post-pandemic life. From setting the statewide policy which guides and frames local decisions, to administering large-scale social and infrastructure programs, establishing and growing online and real-world commerce, to acting on behalf of all Washingtonians at the federal level, the state, the Governor, and its governing bodies are crucial to understand.

From affordable housing to social justice, public safety to infrastructure, the environment to agriculture/aquaculture, there are many things the state enacts that impact all of us – whether you’ve been here your whole life, or you moved here last week, you’re bound to feel its impact.

So, how do all the aspects of our state-level government system function, and who can you call or email when you have an issue, idea, or need help? How can the passage of a bill be understood in Washington State, without a catchy Schoolhouse Rock song?

In an effort to help, we’ve come up with an introductory guide to how the state works, how to get involved on issues that impact you, and where to go to learn more.


How Did We Get Here? ( Washington State Political History)

Named for George Washington—the first U.S. president – it was admitted into the union on Nov. 11, 1889 as the 42nd state. Carved from western part of the Washington Territory ceded by the British Empire in 1846, the state is bordered by the Pacific Ocean in the west, Oregon in the south, Idaho in the east, and the Canadian Province of British Columbia in the north.

Geographically Washington is the 18th largest state (71,362 sq. miles) and 13th most populous one with 7.7 million people. Western Washington holds the state’s population base, specifically along the Interstate-5 corridor. The state is thought often as politically divided by the Cascade Mountains – the liberal portion mainly being in Western Washington and the conservative areas laying mainly to the East.

Because of its agricultural, natural resources, and manufacturing/innovation sectors, Washington is among America’s wealthiest states and still among the nation’s most socially liberal, having legalized same-sex marriage, medicinal and recreational cannabis, protecting legal abortion rights, and the right to assisted suicide.


What Is Washington’s Form Of Government?

A Washington state constitution was initially drafted and ratified in 1878, but it was never officially adopted. That early document was then used extensively in the drafting of the state’s official 1889 constitution.

As stated in the 1889 constitution, our government, like most states in the US, is made up of three elements:

  1. The bicameral Washington State Legislature which considers, debates and votes upon new laws
  2. The statewide elected officials in the executive branch (including the Governor) which enforce laws and administers policy
  3. The nine-justice Washington Supreme Court which ensures the state’s laws and resulting policies are compliant with both the state’s constitution and federal protections.

Let’s take a moment to look at each element in more detail…


1. Washington State Legislature

Washington State Legislature in Spring. Photo courtesy of Washington State Senate Republican Caucus
Washington State Legislature in Spring. Photo courtesy of Washington State Senate Republican Caucus

Our state’s government is made up of two houses (bi-cameral) – the lower House of Representatives and the upper State Senate – and is responsible for making new laws and changing old ones as well as imposing taxes, writing the state’s budget, and regulating other state agencies.

Legislative Districts
The state is divided up into 49 legislative districts, serving approximately 137,000 people each. Boundaries are only redrawn every 10 years after the issuance of the U.S. Census. Each district elects two representatives to the lower House of Representatives and one senator to the upper State Senate.

  • There are 98 total House of Representatives who serve two-year terms. There are no term limits set for the House.
  • There are 49 State Senators who serve four-year terms. There are no term limits set for the Senate.
  • Bainbridge Island lies within District 23 for both House and Senate representation.

Who Can Be a Legislator?
Anyone who is at least 18 years old, registered to vote, and who lives in the district can run for Senate or the House of Representatives. The Washington State Legislature is a part-time citizen legislature, which means most of its members also have other careers or jobs in addition to their elected position.

Representation for District 23:

Our district has 3 total legislators – 2 positions in the state house, and 1 position in the state senate


Washington State Legislative Districts, focusing on Kitsap County. Photo courtesy of the Washington Secretary of State Office
Washington State’s Current Legislative Districts, focusing on Kitsap County. Photo courtesy of the Washington Secretary of State Office

Voting in Washington

Washington is the second easiest state for citizens to vote in, according to the Associated Press. Anyone registered in a district, who is at least 18 years or older can vote for their representatives. Washington uses the non-partisan blanket primary system after the approval of Initiative 872 in 2004 which puts all candidates on the same ballot during primary elections, with the top two candidates then advancing to the November election regardless of party affiliation, which is why there can be a number of same-party general election match-ups.

When Does the Legislature Meet?
The legislature holds regular sessions each year, starting on the second Monday in January. However, in Washington State, the legislature operates on a biennial (2-year) schedule:

  • Long Session: Each new biennium begins in each odd-numbered year and lasts for 105 calendar days.
  • Short Session: Held in even-numbered years and lasts for 60 days.

In addition, the Governor can call extraordinary sessions to address specific issues, usually the budget, but can be on any topic. No special session can last more than 30 days.

View the Legislature’s current Agenda, Schedules, and Calendars.

For deadlines on bills view the Cut-Off Calendar.

What are Legislative Committees?
To arrive at policy or change laws, the Legislature has committees. These committees are small working groups of Senators or Representatives who review proposed laws and study issues confronting the state to form new laws. During that committee stage of discussion, any bills introduced in the Legislature may also receive a public hearing, to give citizens a chance to present their opinions and suggestions on specific pieces of proposed legislation.

There are multiple standing committees (meaning that they meet in each legislative session) set up in order to be able to group and discuss similar proposed bills together by topic – Each one has a committee chair, who decides which proposed bills will be heard by the committee and when to bring them to a vote.

House Standing Committees

  • Agriculture & Natural Resources
  • Appropriations
  • Capital Budget
  • Civil Rights & Judiciary
  • Community Safety, Justice & Reentry
  • Consumer Protection & Business
  • Education
  • Environment & Energy
  • Finance
  • Health Care & Wellness
  • Housing
  • Human Services, Youth & Early Learning
  • Innovation, Community & Economic Development, & Veterans
  • Labor & Workplace Standards
  • Local Government
  • Postsecondary Education & Workforces
  • Regulated Substances & Gaming
  • Rules
  • State Government & Tribal Relations
  • Transportation

Senate Standing Committees

  • Agriculture, Water Natural Resources & Parks
  • Business, Financial Services, Gaming & Trade
  • Early Learning & K-12 Education
  • Environment, Energy & Technology
  • Health & Long-Term Care
  • Higher Education & Workforce Development
  • Housing
  • Human Services
  • Labor & Commerce
  • Law & Justice
  • Local Government, Land Use & Tribal Affairs
  • Rules
  • State Government & Elections
  • Transportation
  • Ways & Means


2. Washington’s Statewide Elected Officials

Inside Chambers at the Washington State House of Representatives. Image courtesy of Washington Legislative Services
Inside Chambers at the Washington State House of Representatives. Image courtesy of Washington Legislative Services


The Governor is head of the executive branch of government, and also has legislative responsibilities, as well as serving as an agent of communications with other states and the federal government. The role has three key functions:

  1. Executive Administration: Appointing the heads of departments, agencies, and institutions, as well as holding cabinet meetings, communicating with state officers, and overseeing the budget.
  2. Legislative: Reporting to the Legislature annually on affairs of the state (the State of the State Address), submitting a budget recommendation, holding veto authority over legislation passed by the Legislature, and convening the Legislature in extraordinary session.
  3. Federal Liaison: Communicating and acting as the state’s agent for Federal agencies. Acts as commander-in-chief of the state’s military establishment – the National Guard – except when that is called into federal services. There is also pardoning power vested in the governor.

Other Executive Branch Positions

  1. Lieutenant Governor  – Acts as Governor if elected is unable to perform duties or removed from office, presides over Senate and Chairs the Senate Rules Committee, as well as a member of the State finance and capitol committees, Washington health care and higher education facilities authority and sits on the State Medal of Merit Committee.
  2. Secretary of State – Responsible for supervising all state and local elections, oversees corporations, private nonprofits and organizations doing business in Washington, collects and preserves historical records, oversees the Productivity Board to streamline government, Address Confidentiality Program for victims of domestic violence and certifies documents issued by the Governor and some matters for the Legislature.
  3. State Treasurer – Provides banking, financial and investment oversight, administers revenues collected by state agencies.
  4. Attorney General – State’s chief legal officer and acts as counsel for the governor, state officials, 230 state agencies, boards, and commissions as well as enforces the Consumer Protection Act
  5. State Auditor – Ensures that the state and 2,400 local governments are accountable to the public they serve by reviewing every public dollar spent with regular financial and legal compliance audits, investigates fraud and whistle blower claims.
  6. Superintendent of Public Instruction (non-partisan) – Responsible for the administration of K-12 learning statewide which accounts for 46% of the state’s general fund spend.
  7. Insurance Commissioner – Elected to oversee consumer protection and overall industry regulation, making sure that insurance companies meet their obligations to abide by rigorous financial and legal standards for doing business in the state.
  8. Commissioner of Public Lands – Elected head of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources – among the largest natural resources agencies in the nation. The department has four roles: land manager, regulator, firefighter, and conservator.


3. Washington Supreme Court

Washington State Supreme Court Justices 2023. Photo courtesy Washington State Supreme Court
Washington State Supreme Court Justices 2023. Photo courtesy Washington State Supreme Court

The Washington Supreme Court is the highest court in the state. Nine justices serve on the bench, all of which are elected via statewide ballot. The court is designed to be nonpartisan, with each Justice serving a six-year term, and the expiration of each position staggered to ensure that with three justices are submitted themselves to the electorate every two years.

The WA Supreme Court is asked to review more than 1,000 cases in any given year, with many coming from the State Court of Appeals, and some directly from the state’s three Superior Courts.

In each 4-month session the court hears oral argument in approximately 45 cases. At least 5 of the 9 justices have to agree to decide a case. Justices will write a majority opinion, adding concurring or dissenting opinions.


How Can You Get Involved?

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

  1. Attend a local meeting
  2. Make an appointment to meet in Olympia
  3. Send an email
  4. 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:

For more on Citizen-led legislative change, as well as look inside the process that creates all other state laws through Washington’s legislative process, head on over to our next article in the Local Government 101 series: A User Guide To Passing Laws in Washington State


Across the state, Washington has appointed representatives and built establishments that help create and oversee the laws created to try and solve the challenges of modern life in the PNW. While it might feel like a daunting proposition, it is important to understand the parts, to know how they fit together, and to be confident in the many ways to get involved in the state’s process.

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…