OLYMPIA – Each year, Washington’s August primary election doles out civic homework just as families scatter for vacations and nearly everyone feels the pull of getting outdoors in search of sun.
Especially in an odd-numbered year, which lacks high-profile races such as a campaign for governor, you could be forgiven for not being fully tuned in.
But you no longer have an excuse to miss a Washington election if you aren’t registered to vote.
For the first time, Washington is implementing same-day voter registration, meaning someone can register to vote — or update an existing registration — until 8 p.m. Aug. 6, the end of the primary period.
The concept, spearheaded by Democratic lawmakers in 2018 and supported by some Republicans, is lauded as a way to increase participation in democracy, building on the intended ease of voting by mail. Some Republican lawmakers, however, have opposed same-day registration, asserting the practice could lead to fraud.
Washington joins 20 other states and the District of Columbia in having some form of same-day registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Idaho and Montana each has a form of same-day registration; Oregon still requires voters to register three weeks in advance.
Proponents of same-day registration say it’s a way to make sure nobody is excluded from an election because they didn’t know to register or didn’t update an existing registration.
“We know in our country that that’s an issue, we don’t have people voting at the extent that we’d like to see,” said Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue and sponsor of Senate Bill 6021.
Previously, Washington voters could register online or via mail 29 days before Election Day. Would-be voters registering at their county elections office could register there in person up to eight days before an election.
To register, voters must provide a valid driver’s license, state ID or Social Security number on the registration form.
That voter must be a U.S. citizen and legal resident of Washington, and at least 18 years by Election Day. The person must not be disqualified by a court order from voting, and not under supervision by the state Department of Corrections for a felony conviction that occurred here.
With the new law, potential voters can register by mail or online until eight days before an election. In those final eight days, people can register in person at their county auditor or elections office.
The law goes into effect alongside a new statewide voter-management system, known as VoteWA, designed in part to make sure people can’t commit voter fraud by casting more than one ballot.
VoteWA centralizes some of the state’s election process and includes a registration database updated in real time across the state, allowing election workers to determine if someone is registered elsewhere in the state or already has cast a ballot.
County officials have scrambled to work the bugs out of that system, which included problems last month during testing, which state officials have said are now fixed.
That’s a big reason elections officials are making elections changes during an off-year elections.
The lower turnout should allow election officials to get a handle on both the new voter system and same-day registration ahead of the 2020 elections, which includes races for president and governor.
In what has become a highly divisive national political climate, voter turnout then could meet or break records. Last year, Washington voters just barely missed notching a new state record for turnout in the midterms. In that election, 71.83% of registered voters cast ballots.
In previous presidential races, election workers have seen spikes on the last day to register, said Secretary of State Kim Wyman, whose office oversees election efforts.
“We just would see these off-the-chart numbers statewide,” said Wyman, a Republican who supported same-day registration but had hoped to phase it in more slowly alongside the new voter-management system. “People wait till the last minute; it’s human nature.”
To help handle increased interest, Washington’s same-day voter-registration legislation also requires counties to operate voting centers during presidential elections in cities of more than 100,000 people.
While it isn’t a presidential-election year, King County has decided to open several regional voting centers this primary period, where people can get election help with registrations or changes. (Go to kingcounty.gov/depts/elections for more information.)
“We’re piloting these locations, to see if they make good sense,” said King County Elections Director Julie Wise, who is planning for about 800 people to register on Aug. 6.
Voter fraud is rare
Although claims of voter fraud emerge every election year, documented instances are rare. A 2007 report by the Brennan Center for Justice concluded it was “extraordinarily difficult to find reported cases in which individuals have submitted registration forms in someone else’s name in order to impersonate them at the polls.”
Meanwhile, the right-leaning Heritage Foundation’s database on voter fraud doesn’t show any instances in Washington state since 2010.
And some high-profile instances of fraud — like the one that spurred the do-over this year of a North Carolina House election — aren’t related to people showing up to register.
“In-person voter fraud is vanishingly rare; it almost never happens,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
But those who have lived in Washington long enough probably remember the fraught and messy 2004 race for governor between Republican Dino Rossi and Democrat Christine Gregoire.
Rossi prevailed in the first count. Gregoire ultimately won by 133 votes in a recount of an election that encountered multiple problems, including lost ballots lost and votes discovered to have been cast by felons or in the name of dead people.
“If you don’t have confidence in elections, you don’t have a strong democracy,” said Michael Baumgartner, a former GOP state senator who voted against same-day voter registration. He cited that 2004 election, along with Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, as incidents that can hurt confidence in elections.
Since Washington is considered a predominantly Democratic state, Baumgartner also said he believed same-day registration here is designed to “give Democrats an advantage.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, has said he’s concerned about the potential for homeless people registering on Election Day to be exploited.
Same-day registration is designed to work alongside two other bills passed in 2018. Those allow for automatic voter registration at some state agencies — like the Department of Licensing — and voluntary preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds.
Those laws, which will get more people registered throughout the year, should theoretically relieve some of the pressure on people needing to register at the last minute, such as Election Day.
Automatic voter registration is considered a strong and secure way to combat fraud, according to Wyman, since the citizens are already providing identification, such as a driver’s license or a Social Security number.
A boost for turnout?
Researching whether same-day registration boosts turnout is difficult because there are so many variables.
But some studies — along with Colorado’s recent experience — have shown that turnout can increase with expanded voter-registration times.
Colorado in 2013 adopted wide-ranging changes to its elections, joining Washington and Oregon with a vote-by-mail system. The state also added same-day voter registration and automatic voter registration.
“All of these things combined make voting really accessible,” said Serena Woods, communications director for the Colorado Secretary of State.
A study from Pew Charitable Trusts found that turnout in the state’s 2014 midterm elections grew to 54.7%, up from 51.7% in the 2010 midterms.
In last year’s midterms, Colorado saw the nation’s second-highest voter turnout at 62.7% of its voting-eligible population, which includes all potential voters, not just those registered.