In the last days of the 2018 Washington legislative session, four bills aimed at reforming Washington’s voting policies and practices were delivered to Governor Jay Inslee, expected to be signed into law this week. In these days when it can feel like democracy is under full attack, the new laws should help the state put its ballot decisions in front of more voters.
“I think it’s fundamental to democracy that we have broad participation in elections,” said 43rd District Sen. Jamie Pedersen.
Pedersen co-sponsored the Voting Rights Act Senate Bill 6002, a state-level version of the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which details the government’s responsibilities to voter equality, and Senate Bill 6021 for increased voter registration periods.
Two more House Bills: 2595 for Automatic Voter Registration by state-run agencies and 1513 for pre-registering students to vote are co-sponsored by 43rd District Rep. Nicole Macri and expected to be enacted into law.
The bills were drafted by lawmakers to remove barriers to voter participation and increase registration for communities that experience limits to accessing their voting rights.
While the new laws garnered bipartisan support in both Senate and the House committees, “by and large the majority of Republicans were against them,” 22nd District Sen. Sam Hunt tells CHS.
“They see voting as a privilege and I see it as a right,” said Hunt.
According to the Washington Voting Justice Coalition, one million registered Washington residents do not vote in addition to a million who are eligible but unregistered. The coalition of labor, cultural, and civic organizations, focuess on rallying lawmakers to redress barriers that limit universal voting access.
So far, ten states have established their own version of automatic voter registration laws following Oregon, the first to enact AVR legislation in 2015.
“What we have done is made Washington a leader in the nation in access to democracy, providing safe and secure and easy access to voting and registration,” said Hunt.
Democrats and the coalition were unable to pass their automatic voter registration bill during the last five legislative sessions.
A meeting of the 43rd District Democrats is set for March 20 when coalition representatives Pedersen and Macri will discuss initial outcomes of the bill.
Dictums for House Bills 2595 for automatic voter registrations and 1513 for pre-registration for young people overlap at the Department of Licensing, where new teenage drivers will automatically be registered to vote ahead of their 18th birthday, and any citizen who makes an address change to their license will have their registration information automatically updated. Under House Bill 1513, Washington “teachers must make voter sign-up and registration available to all students” each January on “Temperance and Good Citizenship Day,” according to the bill document.
Individuals will be automatically registered only when dealing with the WA Health Exchange or at the DOL, agencies which verify citizenship. Under automatic voter registration, DOL visitors must now opt-out of registration instead of having to opt-in.
“Republicans consistently talk about voter fraud, it’s kind of stunning honestly but the evidence is overwhelming as we know that it is almost non-existent, and the bigger problem is the disenfranchisement of poor people,” said Pedersen.
“We did not endanger the security of the voting process through these bills,” said Hunt.
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The Voting Rights Act Senate Bill 6002 allows individuals and agencies to address issues at the state level rather than via the Federal Act in Federal courts and outlines methods to ensure underserved demographics are informed of voting periods.
According to Sen. Hunt, Yakima County is 40% Hispanic but had never elected a Hispanic official. In 2012, Yakima citizens sued the city to address government structures which resulted in unbalanced elections. “You could get a Hispanic on the ballot, but an Anglo would always win,” he said.
The plaintiffs were forced to go to federal court under the 1965 Federal Voting Act. Yakima residents won the case which led to four Hispanic people elected in the following cycle but cost to city $3-$4-million in court costs.
Intended to combat barriers to participation, Senate Bill 6021 supports extending the period for voter registration up to and within eight days of an election. According to the WVJ coalition, current voter registration ends 29 days before an election. “Washingtonians need to be able to register to vote during the times they are most aware and excited about voting.”
“Things break down when you only have a small percentage of the voting population who are part of the democratic process,” said Pedersen.
The 2018 legislative session ended on March 8, however, Gov. Inslee has two more days to take action on the bills.
The WVJ coalition will set their sights on the next legislative session when they will promote new voting measures for language and ballot drop-off access.
“The first thing is that we enact these into law properly and make sure they work. This is a historic victory,” said Hunt.