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A million Washingtonians aren’t registered to vote. Why?


(Oct. 7, 2015) — In a democracy, all citizens should be able to vote. Laws shouldn’t make it harder to vote. Laws should ease the way to voting. That is, unless we don’t want all citizens to vote. But if that is the case, we have a pretty poor democracy.

register-vote-stampMore than a quarter of voting age adults in our state are not registered to vote. If you subtract the seven percent who are not citizens, that leaves over a million adults who are of voting age, are citizens, and can’t vote because they are not registered to vote.

When you turn 18, or get your driver’s license, or pay your property taxes, you don’t get an automatic right to the vote. You have to affirmatively act to register to vote. If you fail to do that, or miss a deadline, or don’t have access to the Internet, or it just doesn’t cross your mind, you can’t vote.

On the other hand, you pay your taxes automatically, with the sales tax. Your FICA taxes for Social Security and Medicare are subtracted from your pay check, no questions asked. So for some of us, we experience taxation without representation, because we are not registered to vote.

We could criticize those who have not registered to vote. We could say that they don’t exercise their civic responsibility, that they couldn’t register to vote in between looking at their smart phones and immersing themselves in social media. On the other hand, it might not be at the top of someone’s to-do list when they are working two shifts at a lousy wage and caring for their kids. Either way, none of these arguments trump the dismal anti-democratic fact that over one million citizens aren’t registered to vote in our state.

Registering to vote is the first step and actually voting is the next step. But we are not doing very well on that account either.

In the Snohomish County primary elections, for example, of the 421,450 ballots that were mailed out, 97,433 were returned and counted as votes. Another 150,000 citizens in Snohomish County did not get the option, because they were not registered voters. So the dismal math is that while close to 100,000 citizens voted in August, close to 500,000 did not.

We could make it easier to register to vote, by allowing voter registration on election day, as is done in Idaho, Wyoming, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin. Or we could be like North Dakota, and not even have a system for voter registration. As a citizen, you just vote. In Australia, if you don’t vote, you get fined, but that practice may be more suitable to the Aussie Outback rather than the American West.

So how about we look closer to home? Just this summer the Oregon legislature passed a law for automatic voter registration. Here’s how it works: if you are a citizen and you sign up for your driver’s license, you are automatically enrolled as a registered voter. If you don’t want to be a registered voter, you have 30 days to opt out. It is that simple.

Who is not registered to vote now?

Disproportionately these citizens are low-income workers, Hispanic-Americans, young people, those who only have high school diplomas, and high school dropouts. They have drawn the short end of the stick for many things in life, and not registering to vote just compounds that. Consider a high school senior with college-educated parents insisting that she register to vote as soon as she turns 18, and a high school senior working at McDonald’s, helping with her family’s income and studying and hoping to go to community college. One has plenty of time and parental pushing to register to vote, the other has little time to do so. With automatic voter registration, both of them would get registered to vote.

We complain a lot about our elections and the various candidates for office. Then we complain about lack of voter turnout in elections. Then we complain about people not registering to vote. We may not be able to immediately fix the first and second complaints, but we could get everyone registered to vote. That might help voter turnout and getting good candidates to run for public office. At least it is the thing to do in a democracy!


John Burbank is the executive director and founder of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle. John can be reached at

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