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Kittitas County and CWU served as model for program to help college students vote

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 10, 2021

First-time voter Jacob Whitman, 18, drops his ballot in the box at the Spokane County Elections Office on Aug. 6, 2019, in Spokane. Whitman took advantage of registering and voting on the same trip. Ten public university campuses in the state offer authorized voting centers where eligible voters can register, re-register and cast ballots. Central Washington University in Kittitas County was the first to offer on-campus voting center.  ( Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
First-time voter Jacob Whitman, 18, drops his ballot in the box at the Spokane County Elections Office on Aug. 6, 2019, in Spokane. Whitman took advantage of registering and voting on the same trip. Ten public university campuses in the state offer authorized voting centers where eligible voters can register, re-register and cast ballots. Central Washington University in Kittitas County was the first to offer on-campus voting center. ( Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

While 10 Student Engagement Hubs made voting more accessible for university students across Washington starting in the spring of 2020, Central Washington University had the makings of the first center more than a decade ago.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” said Jerry Pettit, who has been Kittitas County auditor since 2005. “We actually started what we called the Central Washington University Elections Assistance Center in 2009. It was primarily coordinated by students at CWU and the Associated Students, but we supported it.”

Pettit said the idea surfaced in 2008, during the U.S. presidential election, when auditors’ offices weren’t forwarding CWU students their ballots. “Vote by mail was just starting out and students were trying to get provisional ballots so they could vote,” Pettit said.

“Every time a bus pulled up in front of the county courthouse where our office is, there would be more lines of students seeking provisional ballots.”

Deluged office staff members did their best to keep up. But it was a massive effort.

The following spring, at the university’s annual Civics Week, Pettit pitched an idea to ease the bottleneck: Set up an on-campus center at election time.

“The students went crazy over it. And it’s happened every general election since then,” Pettit said. “Students are happy that they don’t have to leave campus to register or download their ballots, and we don’t have lines out the door.”

Pettit explained the system became formalized when, a few years ago, student government groups sat down with Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, and drafted legislation that became part of a voting law approved in 2020 that expanded voting hubs to all public university campuses in Washington.

“It helps out auditors because you don’t have students showing up en masse and auditors have a way to deliver critical information,” Liias said. “And students get the access they need.”

Liias said despite improvements over the years, youth voting still lags behind participation by older voters. The hubs, Liias said, remove more barriers for young people.

Pettit agreed. “The hubs provide opportunities to allow more people to participate in the democratic process.”

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