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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  WA Government

Spin Control: State looking at ways to increase voters and turnout

Spokane County election worker Sheralee Van Ry gathers ballots that were sorted by machine into precincts, Oct. 25, 2016, at the election center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County election worker Sheralee Van Ry gathers ballots that were sorted by machine into precincts, Oct. 25, 2016, at the election center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

State officials seem intent on getting more people to register and vote, one way or another.

From making it so easy that registration is almost automatic, to “preregistering” 16- and 17-year-olds, to moving around the date of the state and presidential primaries, legislators and Secretary of State Kim Wyman are kicking around lots of ideas that might boost turnout.

One of the driving factors is likely last November’s abysmal turnout – 37.1 percent statewide – the lowest for a general election in at least 35 years.

So Wyman and legislators are suggesting that Washington residents should have a bigger window to register. Right now, you can register online or by mail up to 28 days before an election and in person by going to the county elections office up to eight days before ballots are due. Wyman’s proposal would change mail and online registration to 11 days out and in-person registration to zero days before the election.

That’s right: You could sign up on Election Day and vote. Idaho does that, but they still vote at polls. In Washington, where voters are mailed a ballot nearly three weeks ahead of the election in hopes that they’ll get around to sending it back on time, there are no precinct polling stations.

Procrastinators would have to go to the elections office or some other place the county auditor designates to show ID and register.

Another group of bills would automatically register unregistered people at certain points, like when they get or renew their driver’s license. They’d have to be receiving or renewing an enhanced driver’s license, which requires proof of citizenship.

Oregon and several other states do that, and it does have the effect of boosting the rolls.

In an effort to make the state’s presidential primary more relevant – set by statute in late May, most years it could hardly be less relevant – Wyman would like to move that vote to March. The state could also shift it around to join a regional presidential primary, if surrounding states could get their act together to go in on something like that.

The state’s regular primary, now held the first week of August, could get moved to May, when the kids are still in school and many families aren’t off somewhere on summer vacation. That might have a side benefit of forcing the Legislature to go home on time in even-numbered years, because state law doesn’t allow lawmakers to accept campaign money while they’re in session, and, if they hang around Olympia for extra innings, their unelected challengers can collect bucks but they can’t.

Another proposal would allow teens applying for their driver’s license to “preregister” at 16 or 17. They’d fill out a form that would automatically add them to the rolls when they turn 18. Schools also would be encouraged to preregister those students in civics class or on a day dedicated to learning about citizenship.

The state already allows 17-year-olds to register to vote if they are going to turn 18 before the election. Another wrinkle proposed for the registration laws would allow a 17-year-old who will turn 18 before the general election to vote in the primary, even if they are still 17 at that point.

The idea behind preregistration is a bit like a reversal of efforts to raise the age for buying cigarettes to 21. Studies show people who start smoking as teens tend to keep smoking; those who start later sometimes have an easier time quitting.

Maybe people who start voting young could get “hooked” on the electoral process and continue to send in their ballots for years into the future.

All of these are interesting ideas that could help. But it’s important to remember that Washington has made it easier to register and vote for the past couple of decades, yet we still managed barely a smidge above 1 voter in 3 bothering to vote in November. It’s possible that these ideas will expand the rolls faster than they will drive up turnout, except perhaps in presidential years when apparently some people wake up the morning of the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November and say “Oh, wow! Why didn’t anybody tell me there’s an election today, so I could register to vote?”

If they REALLY want to vote at that point, and are motivated enough to do some research, figure out how they can still register, then hustle down to the designated sign-up location, they’re going to be able to cast a ballot.

Not necessarily a well-informed vote, but we don’t require any voter be informed before marking their ballot. Their vote will be as valid as anyone else’s, and the total number of votes will go up for that election.

The real test of automatic, preregistration and Election Day registration will come the year after they’ve signed up. All those voters will still be on the rolls, but the newness will have worn off and the excitement of the presidential election will be gone. At that point, will they bother to cast a ballot?

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