Two bills in Olympia would make it easier to register to vote. A good idea. But keep registration an active choice, not automatic.
ALL eligible citizens should register to vote and participate in the elections that shape all levels of government. Requiring the entry into such civic engagement to involve a simple, affirmative action is hardly unreasonable.
People are deterred from registering to vote for all sorts of reasons, including lack of interest, inconvenience or frustration with the political system.
Efforts to broaden voter participation have included mail-in ballots. For decades, voter registration has included the so-called “motor voter” option — register to vote when applying for or renewing a driver’s license.
Two measures in Olympia, HB 2682 and SB 6379, would employ the state departments of Health, Services for the Blind, Social and Health Services, Health Benefit Exchange and Health Care Authority as voter-registration-assistance agencies.
Application for any assistance from these departments requires proof of citizenship and residency, the same paperwork as applying to vote.
Washington has a unique wrinkle in its Department of Licensing procedures for a regular driver’s license or ID card: No citizenship or residency information is required or asked for. Disclosure of such status is only required by DOL if an applicant chooses to register to vote — or to get an enhanced driver’s license.
The legislation in Olympia to expand the convenience of voter registration to moments of bureaucratic interface with social service agencies makes great sense. Except for one point:
Registration would be automatic, requiring the applicant to actively refuse. Say “no,” check the refusal box, or both, or whatever. Otherwise, the citizenship and residency information is automatically guided toward the Secretary of State’s Office to launch the enrollment process. The legislation is mindful of clearly presenting the “no” option.
A better approach is to require voter applicants to say “yes,” or check the box. Make a simple, active choice to register to vote. They have the required paperwork, but the option is theirs, not automatic. The alternative could be “not now.”
In these settings, asking applicants if they want to register to vote is not intrusive because they need the relevant documents to claim the other services.
Some applicants might be understandably distracted by the original business at hand, so a “not now” option is realistic.
An essentially artificial infusion of voters onto the registry might create heady numbers, but it is not likely to be rewarded by higher participation. Indeed, gloomier turnout results are predictable and come with a cost of administrative overhead.
Make registration easier, indeed. But citizenship comes with duties and responsibilities and one is as basic as acknowledging a desire to vote.