New push coming for automatic voter registration

Activists hope to see Washington follow in footsteps of Oregon, California

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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Activists in Clark County and across the state are preparing for a new push to enact automatic voter registration in Washington either in the upcoming legislative session or through a ballot initiative next year.

If adopted, the state would automatically register voters who prove their eligibility when they interface with government offices, such as getting an enhanced driver’s license. Proponents say it not only increases voter turnout and engagement but also streamlines the process.

“The idea, from our perspective, is to make voting as easy as possible,” said Alice Perry Linker, a volunteer with an informal group of that’s supporting the effort. “It’s a right that all citizens have and we want to make it easy for them.”

It’s already been embraced by Oregon and California, which both adopted laws in 2015 that automatically registered eligible citizens to vote when applying for driver’s licenses or ID cards. It’s still being implemented in California, but Oregon saw over a quarter-million people registered within nine months of the law going into effect.

According to numbers from the Washington Secretary of State, the percentage of the voting age population that’s registered to vote has been on the decline. In 1972, 85.6 percent were registered. In 2016, that number dropped to 76.8 percent.

During the last two legislative sessions, automatic voter registration legislation was introduced but failed to advance out of committee.

Cara Bilodeau, who serves on the steering of the Washington Voting Justice Coalition (an alliance of various left-leaning groups that supports automatic voter registration) said she hopes this upcoming legislative session will be different.

She said that previously the legislation hasn’t advanced because of “special interests” and Republican control of the state Senate. But she said that a special election in King County to be held this fall for a Senate seat previously held by a Republican could change control of the chamber and allow the legislation to advance.

Though legislation didn’t advance in 2016, Washington state Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, did voice her support of the bill.

Bilodeau said she thinks “that just the groundswell of other states adopting it as a common sense way of modernizing our elections is more of an impetus for Washington state to be a leader on these issues.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a total of nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted some version of automatic voter registration.

Bilodeau said that while automatic voter registration will be a priority for the coalition’s legislative efforts, she said it will also support other voting-related legislation, such as same-day voter registration, postage-paid ballots and others.

She said that implementing automatic voter registration in Washington will be different from other West Coast states. Unlike Oregon and California, Washington does not require applicants for driver’s licenses to verify their citizenship, unless they are applying for an enhanced or commercial license. Bilodeau said that the legislation would automatically register people applying for the enhanced or commercial licenses to vote if they are eligible.

Bilodeau also said that the potential legislation would also look to other state agencies to register eligible voters. Citizens who verify their citizenship to receive social services would also be automatically registered under the legislation she said. For instance, someone signing up for health care through the state’s Affordable Care Act insurance exchange would be registered.

Locally, Sharon Wylie and Monica Stonier, both Democratic state representatives from Vancouver, are supportive.

Stonier said that people who are negatively affected by public policies don’t consistently vote and that automatic registration could help change that.

“I think one of the biggest challenges we face right now is that not all voices are heard in our elections,” she said.

Stonier said automatically registering someone to vote is better than handing them another form while they’re getting their driver’s license. She said those forms can be discarded or forgotten and processing them becomes redundant work for the state, which already has information required to register them.

Bilodeau said that member groups of the coalition will be organizing all across the state to support the legislation. She said if it doesn’t pass, the coalition will begin using networks of activists to collect signatures for a statewide ballot initiative that will go before voters next year.

Locally, a meeting for the effort will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the IAFF Hall at 2807 Fruit Valley Road in Vancouver.

Linker said that volunteers for the campaign will conduct outreach, contact lawmakers and other efforts. But she said that right now they’re focused on letting people now what they’re doing.

“This will be a statewide effort,” said Linker. “It has to be.”