State legislators have introduced bills to allow automatic voter registration for some citizens who have already met voting requirements through such processes as getting enhanced driver’s licenses, or getting health insurance through the state health exchange.
OLYMPIA — Months after Washington state saw record low voter turnout, several lawmakers and Secretary of State Kim Wyman say they want to help increase engagement with automatic voter registration for some.
Two measures, Senate Bill 6379 and House Bill 2682, would automatically register people who aren’t on the voter rolls but apply for or already have an enhanced driver’s license or commercial driver’s licenses.
Those who receive social services that verify citizenship or who get health insurance through the state health exchange also would be automatically registered.
The measures would take effect Jan. 1, 2017, and be retroactive so that unregistered voters who already have the specialized driver’s licenses or benefits would have their information sent to the secretary of state’s office, which would notify them that they can opt out. If the potential voter doesn’t respond, he or she will be automatically registered within 60 days.
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“We believe this bill would simplify the process, enhance accuracy and, more importantly, would expand our democracy so that people would understand that we’re trying to make it easier for them to vote, not harder,” said state Sen. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Seattle who is the sponsor of the Senate measure.
The House bill has been approved by the House State Government Committee and is awaiting action in the House Appropriations Committee. The Senate bill had a public hearing but did not pass out of the Senate Government Operations and Security Committee.
Last year, California and Oregon were the first states to pass automatic voter-registration bills and have them signed into law. New Jersey also passed such a law, but Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it.
Unlike California and Oregon, Washington does not require proof of U.S. citizenship or legal presence in order to get a driver’s license, which is why proponents are not seeking automatic voter registration for everyone.
Currently in Washington, people can opt in for voter registration when getting a driver’s license, during which time they need to sign an oath verifying they are U.S. citizens, residents of the state, at least 18 and not disqualified from voting due to a court order or because they are under Department of Corrections supervision for a Washington felony conviction.
Because people who get enhanced or commercial driver’s licenses or receive certain state benefits or health insurance through the exchange are already required to verify citizenship, Wyman said, the proposed measures ensure those being automatically registered are eligible to vote.
“This is a very good middle-ground bill that really gets to the goals of both sides: access and security,” she said.
Rep. Luanne Van Werven, a Republican from Lynden, Whatcom County, voted against the House bill in committee. She said that while there were several elements of the bill that she liked, she was concerned that it is “so much, so fast.”
“Any time you can increase voter registration, I’m all for that,” she said.
However, she would prefer that the state wait to see how California and Oregon’s new laws fare. “It would be a good thing to take a wait-and-see approach on this,” she said.
As for help with turnout, while that’s always the goal, Wyman said that while she believes the bill will help engagement, “I’m not sure it will solve our turnout problems or challenges.”
Wyman said that if the bill becomes law, the number of new voters could range from the tens of thousands to as high as 500,000.
In November, the state saw record low voter participation: Just 38 percent of Washington’s approximately 4 million voters cast a vote. In 2014, the turnout wasn’t much better, at just 54 percent. However, during the last presidential election, in 2012, 81 percent of the state’s voters cast a ballot.
“Voter turnout is cyclical,” Wyman noted.