More than 1 million Washingtonians were eligible to register to vote in 2016, but didn’t. And of those registered, nearly 1 in 5 didn’t vote. The November 2017 General Election set a record low for voter turnout — only 37 percent of voters returned their ballots.
So in 2018, Democratic legislative leaders prioritized removing barriers to voting, both in terms of registration and supporting better election systems. And they delivered. On March 19, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a package of five bills — dubbed the Access to Democracy package — to improve voter access and strengthen democracy in Washington state.
One of them was the Washington Voting Rights Act, SB 6002, sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle). For the sixth time in as many years, the House passed this bill (see Vote #8) creating a path for local governments to change discriminatory voting systems while avoiding costly lawsuits. But this year, the Senate finally got to vote on it, and it passed 29-20 (Vote #16). The WVRA will promote more equal representation by allowing district-based elections or other alternative voting systems to best suit individual communities.
Fair representation was an issue in Yakima, where nearly 40 percent of the population is Latino, yet no Latinos had ever been elected to the city council. The U.S. District Court found in 2014 that Yakima’s at-large voting system disenfranchised Latino voters and diluted their voting power. After this costly lawsuit, Yakima moved to a district-based election in 2015, and three Latinas were promptly elected. The WVRA allows other communities to take similar actions without waiting to get sued.
Another bill in the Access to Democracy package was the DISCLOSE Act, sponsored by Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane). SB 5991 requires nonprofit organizations that donate more than $10,000 a year to political campaigns to register with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission and report their contributions. This will shine a light on “dark money” funneled through political committees and create better informed voters.
The three remaining bills make it easier to register to vote by allowing people to register up to and on Election Day, letting 16- and 17-year-olds pre-register to vote, and creating automatic voter registration for citizens obtaining enhanced driver’s licenses or identification cards through the Department of Licensing.
While Republicans across the U.S. are focused on making it harder to vote (discriminatory Voter ID laws and restricted voting hours) and disenfranchising voters (gerrymandering, rigged voting systems), Washington state is leading the charge in the opposite direction: promoting voting.