As her classmates cheered and chanted her name, Tukwila’s Foster High School senior Maria Alvarez approached the wooden podium in the school’s auditorium Monday. She started her speech: “As a young person who is a student, daughter, friend, sister, cousin, and a person of color who has worked in the fields, I want to make a change that I agree with and not have others make decisions for me.” Tucking her long brown hair behind her ears, she smiled and continued, “All my life, I have had most of my decisions made for me, and I want to be allowed to have a say in what I want in my community, and the changes that occurs.”
Alvarez spoke about the need for youth to be enfranchised and motivated to vote for the matters that affect them the most. “Without our voices, our young lives are in danger,”Alvarez said. “Us young adults are the most impacted by what others vote for. It hits us like a bullet.” Foster High Schoolers were among the thousands of students throughout the state who joined last Wednesday’s national school walkout in commemoration of the 17 people fatally shot at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. last month.
And just like the many other teenagers throughout the nation who have recently become emboldened to speak out against gun violence, Alvarez has had enough of adults speaking and voting on her behalf. But thanks to a package of election reform legislation signed by Governor Jay Inslee in the Foster High School auditorium Monday, it will soon become easier for teens like Alvarez to represent themselves.
Shortly after Alvarez spoke, Gov. Inslee sat at a table with a purple skirt positioned in the center of the stage, and signed into law five bills aimed at facilitating voter turnout, increasing transparency of contributions, and boosting minority representation.
Requested by Gov. Inslee, the Automatic Voter Registration (House Bill 2595) will automatically register to vote U.S. citizens in Washington state when they apply for or renew an enhanced driver’s license if they are 18 years old or older, unless they opt out. Residents who are eligible to vote will also be able to do so when they enroll in the state’s health insurance exchange, beginning Jul. 1, 2019. Another law, HB 1513, will affect Alvarez’s younger classmates by allowing 16 and 17 year olds to pre-register to vote beginning on Jul. 1, 2019 (they still won’t be allowed to vote until they’re 18 years old). Senate Bill 6021 will allow for same-day voter registration, which Alvarez said will help young adults “because we do procrastinate,” by allowing them to register by 8 p.m. on the day of elections starting June 30, 2019. SB 6002 is designed to increase minority representation by allowing cities, counties and school districts to shift from citywide to district elections, starting in 2018. Finally, the Washington State DISCLOSE Act of 2018 (SB 5991) will require that nonprofits file statements with the Public Disclosure Commission if they make contributions or expenditures above $10,000 on political campaigns in a calendar year, beginning Jan. 1, 2019. “The course of democracy makes the sweetest music when it swells with the most voices,” Gov. Inslee said at the bill signing. “And today we’re going to make sure it swells with thousands of new voices bringing democracy to the state of Washington.”
Some of the bills were the result of years of community effort. Supporters say that the state’s Voting Rights Act will help elevate minorities for public office, just as the federal Voting Rights Act did in Yakima and Pasco.
A few years ago, The ACLU of Washington sued the cities of Yakima and Pasco when residents said that the cities’ at-large voting system was preventing Latinx candidates from winning city council seats. As a result of the lawsuits, Pasco and Yakima were court-ordered to move their voting system from citywide to districts, and then elected their first Latinx city council members.
“Our communities saw the need for reform in the way we are represented, and we did something about it,” Roxana Norouzi, duputy director of nonprofit OneAmerica, said in a statement. “We knocked on doors, we wrote letters and we built the grassroots power necessary to hold our leaders accountable. While politicians in Washington D.C. pursue an agenda to strip immigrants of their rights, here in Washington State, we’re driving systems to ensure that immigrants and refugees are the ones setting the agenda.”