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Sunday, February 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: Not everyone wants voter registration tweaks

OLYMPIA – Washington voters have a very good track record of casting ballots – among the best in the country.

Is it perfect? No. Could it be better? Yes. Are there people who should vote but don’t? Probably. Is it worth making major changes to the current system to capture some shoulda-woulda-coulda voters?

Some legislators think so. Some state and local officials who run the elections wish they would knock it off. Judge for yourself who’s right.

Rep. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, has a proposal to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote when they get their first driver’s license. When they turn 18, they’d automatically be on the voter rolls and start getting ballots in the mail.

Billig has another bill to allow Washington residents to register to vote on Election Day. At a hearing on the two bills last week, a line of college activists supported both, saying the first would encourage the “learned behavior” of voting, and the second would be especially helpful on campus, particularly for freshmen who often find themselves away from home for the first time and overwhelmed with signing up for classes, navigating a new campus and straining under the weight of all that class work as the November elections approach. The current registration deadline – four weeks before an election to sign up online and one week before to register in person at a county elections office – is often missed through excess of work or procrastination, or both.

There’s a certain inconsistency to this argument. If 18-year-olds are so mobile that they have trouble registering in their new location, aren’t they so mobile that the ballot they preregistered for at 16 will have trouble finding them?

Election Day registration isn’t solely for the college students, Billig said. It would help everyone. Other supporters said there are lots of people who don’t pay attention to the election until the very end, only to realize too late that they can’t vote because they aren’t registered.

Election officials don’t like either idea. The first requires keeping two lists, the main one for registered voters and a separate one for folks who will be registered voters at some future date, Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton says. The second one works better in states that still have polling places, like Idaho, where would-be voters go to the place they’d cast a ballot and sign up, rather than an all-mail state like Washington.

Dalton and other election officials seem too polite to suggest college students were being a bit whiny in their requests for more help in registering. So I will.

First of all, you can register at the drop of a hat, or at least a few clicks of a mouse – how many college students don’t have access to a computer? – with Washington’s online registration system. It can be done between tweets. If the state wants to register teens and 20-somethings, it should design an app for their smartphones and advertise on Facebook.

Second, there is probably no time in a 16-year-old’s life when he or she is less focused on civic responsibility and voting than immediately after passing that first driver’s test. They are thinking about the prospects of talking Dad out of the car and where they will drive it tonight, tomorrow night and the night after, not the prospects of casting a ballot in two years. Sure they’ll say yes when asked if they want to preregister for voting while standing at the counter; they’ll agree to almost anything they think will get them to the point where the clerk says “sign here” on the license form.

It’s true that 18- to 24-year-olds are much less likely to vote than their older counterparts. There’s a well-established way to change that, but it isn’t by preregistering 16-year-olds and letting people register on Election Day.

It’s what prompted the nation to lower the voting age to 18 in the first place: a war, and a draft. That got teens registering and voting, even though they often had to find a registrar, show a birth certificate and fill out a form by hand 30, 60 or even 90 days before an election.

It’ll boost turnout like crazy; I’m not sure it’s worth it.

On the other hand

While dinging Billig a bit on proposed changes to voter registration, it only seems fair to note an excellent idea of his that also got a hearing last week. He has a bill that would set the same $800 limit on contributions to school board candidates that applies to people seeking legislative, county and city offices. After several school board races with big donations, including one in Spokane last fall, it’s an idea whose time has come.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items, reader comments and videos at spincontrol.

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