Automatic voter registration is a new idea – and a good one where it can work. The states of Oregon and California have gone that route recently. They automatically register non-voters at the time they are given driver licenses.
This registration approach works in those states, because each requires proof of citizenship or legal presence in the U.S. before granting a driver license. For those who are not citizens, Oregon marks the licenses accordingly.
In Washington, it’s a lot trickier to create a streamlined voter-registration system using driver licensing.
That is because our state is one of the few that still grants licenses to drivers irrespective of legal residency status.
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Not to be stymied by this difficulty, Secretary of State Kim Wyman, state Sen. Pramila Jayapal and Rep. Sam Hunt have teamed up to see if there is another way to boost voter registration for additional Washingtonians whose citizenship is certain.
The bipartisan Senate version, Senate Bill 6379, would let Washington’s licensing agency automatically register voters if they have commercial driver licenses or the new enhanced driver licenses – both of which require proof of legal status. Registration would still require the voter to be 18, a state resident and not under supervision of the state Department of Corrections.
House Bill 2682 is an identical proposal in the House sponsored by Hunt, an Olympia Democrat. Both bills establish the Department of Licensing, the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, and a few agencies granting public assistance as voter registration agencies. Any person could opt out of registering to vote.
The exchange and public assistance agencies already collect details of a person’s birth, citizenship, and signature before granting benefits. Under the bill these agencies could register new voters; the information would be sent to the state elections office overseen by Wyman at the Office of the Secretary of State.
Costs for the proposal are still being calculated. But it is a step worth considering at a time when fewer people are taking time to vote.
There are always objections to voter-registration bills from one party or the other. Republicans typically fear Democrats are trying to pull one over to boost voter rolls without safeguards, while Democrats fear the GOP is trying to make as few voters eligible as possible. Current law allows anyone to register based on signing an oath of eligibility.
Republican Sen. Pam Roach of Auburn is a co-sponsor of Jayapal’s bill and gave it a hearing in the Senate committee that deals with elections issues. Hunt’s bill already moved from the House State Government Committee, ensuring that this proposal is alive for further discussion this session.
Wyman, Jayapal, Roach and Hunt deserve credit for making a genuinely bipartisan effort to improve voter participation. Wyman is a Thurston County Republican finishing her first term after a long stint as Thurston County auditor, and Jayapal is a Seattle Democrat who years ago led voter drives among immigrant citizens for the OneAmerica advocacy group.
This proposal is incremental and gets the state prepared for the day when federal Homeland Security requirements under the REAL ID Act of 2005 force Washington into issuing driver licenses that make clear whether the subject is a citizen. Federal agencies are already transitioning under Real ID to stricter requirements on what state identity cards are acceptable for entering federal facilities. Because Washington’s standard driver licenses do not verify a person’s residency status, they would be inadequate for boarding an airplane starting in 2018.
The Wyman-Jayapal-Hunt proposal may still need refinement to limit costs, but the Legislature should keep moving this bipartisan idea forward.