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Washington Passes Exciting Reforms to Modernize and Expand Voter Registration

The state has set a precedent for others looking to overhaul their elections systems.

  • Michael Pelle
March 8, 2018

The Washington state legislature passed its third voter registration modernization law in just eight days when it approved automatic voter registration (AVR) last night. Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign that bill, along with legislation approving Election Day registration and pre-registration, positioning the state to become the first to adopt AVR this year and the 10th to do so overall. By passing these reforms as part of its Access to Democracy legislative package, Washington sets a precedent for other states looking to overhaul their elections systems.

Right now, only 15 states offer pre-registration — allowing all 16– or 17-year-olds to register to vote even if they won’t turn 18 by the next election — and just 14 allow for Election Day registration. There is clearly room for improvement and therefore plenty of legislative opportunity. Forty-two state legislatures are now in session, and lawmakers should build on nationwide momentum from the last few years to work toward passing comprehensive election reform in their states. Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey may join Washington in passing AVR in 2018, and 18 other states are currently considering AVR bills. In addition, at least 11 states have introduced Election Day registration bills and four have introduced pre-registration.

Automatic registration has already proven successful in Oregon, the first state to adopt the policy and, not coincidentally, the state with the largest increase in voter turnout between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections. The state added 225,000 eligible new voters to the rolls in time for the election, and nearly 100,000 of them cast ballots.

Under Washington’s bill, eligible individuals who apply for or renew an enhanced driver’s license at the state’s Department of Licensing will automatically be registered to vote unless they decline. The bill also requires public assistance agencies to move toward automatic voter registration, helping expand the pool of beneficiaries beyond people who drive cars.

This policy along with other new reforms help ensure all eligible individuals can cast ballots on Election Day. Through the soon-to-be-signed preregistration program, 16– and 17-year-olds will be able to sign up as “future voters,” becoming eligible to vote as soon as they turn 18. Getting these individuals involved in the civic process from an early age is important to developing life-long voting habits. 

Even with the most robust voter registration efforts in place, mistakes on the rolls still occur and some eligible citizens fall through the cracks. The Election Day registration bill, which will allow Washingtonians to register to vote or update their registration at county offices on Election Day, helps to solve these challenges. It should be no surprise that all six states with the highest turnout in 2016 offered Election Day registration.

Washington’s pro-voter advancement was the culmination of a multi-year effort by political leaders and community advocates. Secretary of State Kim Wyman first called on the legislature to enact AVR back in 2016. She became a leading proponent of this year’s bill. The legislation was sponsored by State Sen. Sam Hunt and State Rep. Zack Hudgins in conjunction with a number of co-sponsors. Pro-voter groups from the Washington Voting Justice Coalition — including the Washington State Labor Council, Win/Win Network, One America, Fuse Washington, and The Washington Bus — along with national groups like the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, provided support to help get the bill over the finish line.

These reforms build on the state’s existing modernization policies, including online voter registration and the electronic transfer of registration information from Department of Licensing offices to election officials. Once the new systems are implemented, Washington will have one of the most comprehensive registration regimes in the country: a system where registration is the default at state agencies, and where citizens can pre-register at 16, register or update their information online, and — if all else fails — correct any errors on the rolls on Election Day. This integrated, thorough, and tech-enabled approach should become a nationwide aspiration, and 2018 should be a year that we build on that momentum.