Automatic Voter Registration Could Come to Washington

Democratic legislators are pushing a number of bills to make voting easier.

Voting advocate Sean Jacobson has grown accustomed to hearing about the many barriers that young adults face in becoming politically engaged. As an organizer with the youth mobilization nonprofit the Washington Bus, Jacobson says that many of the students he meets during registration drives on college campuses are unsure if they’re registered to vote. Students often move from their hometowns to another jurisdiction for school and fail to update their registrations. Frequent mobility is just one challenge that prevents youth from turning out to vote. A lack of transportation and unfamiliarity with the issues can also preclude young adults from civic engagement.

“For young people, I think … there’s just not as many opportunities for them to engage in our political system because there are barriers to voting,” Jacobson told Seattle Weekly on Tuesday. Washington Bus seeks to address that by hosting phone drives to politically engage youth, holding classroom presentations in high schools, and testifying on behalf of election reform in Olympia. Recently, the organization has narrowed its focus on a package of election reform measures introduced into the state Legislature that aim at increasing voter registration. One such measure is House Bill 2595, which would automatically register U.S. citizens in Washington state who are already eligible to vote.

Introduced last week, the automatic voter registration measure would register U.S. citizens to vote when they apply for or renew an enhanced driver’s license if they are 18 years old or older. “It’s largely turning things from an opt-in to an opt-out system,” said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic State Representative Zack Hudgins. Social service agencies that collect personal information—such as the Washington Health Benefit Exchange and the Department of Social and Health Services—would also automatically register its clients. “We want to increase the number of people that are registering to vote. We want to break down the hurdles and the barriers of registration,” Hudgins said.

The first public hearing in the House Committee on State Government, Elections and Information Technology held on Tuesday only drew testimony from those who supported the measure, said Hudgins. For the Democrats who recently took control of the state Legislature, the automatic voter registration is one way to increase access to the ballot box.

Along with creating an opt-out voting registration system through state agencies, the measure also stipulates that Washington’s Secretary of State would conduct a couple of implementation studies prior to rolling out the policies. One would look at measures that facilitate voter registration for naturalized citizens, and another would preregister babies at birth.

The measure reflects a national trend of lawmakers attempting to facilitate voter registration. Governor Jay Inslee requested HB 2595, and a number of his constituents also requested the bill. One other proposal introduced this session would allow for same-day voter registration, and another would allow 16 and 17 year olds to preregister to vote.

If the measure is approved, Washington would join nine states and the District of Columbia that have already approved automatic voter registration, according to the non-partisan policy institute Brennan Center for Justice. Oregon was the first state to pass automatic voter registration legislation for U.S. citizens with a driver’s license, which has led to a drastic increase in registration since the law’s implementation in January 2016.

In the eyes of Governor Inslee, the timing for election reform is critical. “In our last presidential election, there were one million Washingtonians who could have voted, but were not registered to vote,” Governor Inslee said during a Jan. 5 press conference on the legislation at the state Capitol. “Almost another one million were registered, but did not vote. That’s nearly two million voices not being heard in our state’s democratic process.”

Jacobson is hopeful that the recently introduced measures will encourage more youth to become civically engaged. “A lot of those conversations that do come around politics or community organizing actually start with registering to vote, and so giving everyone the opportunity to vote … is something that we believe in and will increase the voice of young people throughout the state.”