Democrats in the state Legislature are rightfully patting themselves on the back for passing a handful of election reforms meant to get more Washingtonians voting.
One historic new law is a state version of the federal Voting Rights Act. This will let disenfranchised voters sue in state courts – instead of federal court – when there is evidence of race-based discrimination in local elections. And local governments can more easily redraw voting districts.
The Voting Rights Act may help cities like Pasco, Wenatchee and potentially others avoid Yakima’s experience, which led to more than $3 million in legal bills, according to Democratic Sen. Sam Hunt. He moved the election reform package through his state government committee.
Latinos make up more than a third of the Yakima population but no minority candidate won a city council seat until the federal court ordered the city to draw smaller voting districts reflective of city neighborhoods, Hunt told The Olympian Editorial Board last week.
Gov. Jay Inslee signed other bills to permit Election Day voter registration, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds to vote upon turning 18, and automatic voter registration for certain motorists. Another bill closes a campaign finance loophole that let nonprofits avoid reporting their campaign spending. Another requires civics education in high schools.
Democrats say their work boosts “access to democracy.” Democratic Reps. Laurie Dolan and Rep. Beth Doglio and Hunt hope the legislation boosts overall turnout but also helps young adults understand civics and their duty as voters.
Whether the legislation leads to more cast ballots remains to be seen until next year when all the new rules have have taken effect.
Because our state mails ballots to voters, there is not much more government can do to boost turnout – short of a national mandate to vote or be fined.
Among the new laws:
▪ House Bill 2595 lets the Department of Licensing automatically register a motorist for voting at the time the individual gets an “enhanced” driver license or identity card. This option is only for residents who prove their citizenship, which is required to obtain an "enhanced" license or ID.
The bill lets a few state agencies register clients if they have provided proof of citizenship in order to obtain services.
Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, championed a version of this bill two years ago. But it took Democrats winning control of the Senate last November pass it.
▪ House Bill 1513, also supported by Wyman, encourages school districts to hold campus voter registrations during yearly Temperance and Good Citizenship Day events.
▪ House Bill 1896 sets a one-semester civics-education requirement for high school students starting in 2020-21.
Dolan, the prime sponsor, said the civics education can dovetail with such activities as voter registration day.
▪ Senate Bill 5991, known as the DISCLOSE Act, puts new reporting requirements on nonprofit organizations that spend money in elections. The law requires a registration report from nonprofit organizations that don’t already qualify as political committees starting in 2019. PACs already report the source of funds collected and how they are spent.
▪ Senate Bill 6002, the Voting Rights Act, takes effect more than a half-century after passage of the landmark national voting law in 1965. Wyman opposed past versions of the bill, believing it was too punitive. Last year she supported a new approach.
On the down side, legislators failed in other areas of election law.
▪ They did not pass a bill moving the 2020 presidential primary to early March (from late May).
Wyman has sought an early-primary bill and wants to line up the state with others in the West for a regional super-primary. State Democrats have resisted because they hold neighborhood caucuses in March every presidential year to apportion delegates to presidential candidates.
But the party is beginning to support the idea of using a pick-a-party presidential primary as a basis for awarding state delegates to presidential candidates. State Republicans did that in 2016. Hunt wants to pass a bill in time for the 2020 primary.
▪ Lawmakers gave counties new money for election-system audits before and after elections. But counties need better reimbursement of costs for putting statewide races on local ballots.
▪ Lawmakers failed to help counties pay for voter pamphlets during primary elections. A robust voter pamphlet is a good starting tool for voters.
The arrival of a pamphlet days before a ballot lands in voters’ mail boxes is a timely cue for voters that they can – and should – do their civic duty and vote.
Brad Shannon wrote this on behalf of the Editorial Board. Other members are executive editor Dusti Demarest and community members Priscilla Terry and Dani Madrone.