OLYMPIA — Democratic lawmakers are making a big push this session to get more people signed up as voters.
They are moving bills to expand the number of state agencies where one will be automatically registered to vote and to let 16- and 17-year-olds pre-register to ensure they get a ballot when they are legally eligible to cast it.
There’s legislation allowing individuals to sign up and vote on Election Day and a House bill moving through the Senate directs the Secretary of State to study automatically registering people at birth.
“We’re trying to make it easier for people,” said Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, chairman of the House State Government, Elections & Information Technology committee and sponsor of the automatic voter registration bill. “Registration is a hurdle. That’s what the data shows. Our goal is to lower the hurdles.”
He’s working closely with Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, who is chairman of the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections committee.
“We want to make voting as accessible as possible while maintaining the integrity of the ballot box,” Hunt said. “And we want to do all of this in time for the election of 2019 so we’re not trying to get it all done in the presidential (election) year.”
On Friday, Hunt’s committee conducted a hearing on the automatic voter registration, House Bill 2595 which the House passed 50-48.
One part calls for signing up individuals when they apply for an enhanced driver’s license or identicard unless they refuse. This builds on the existing Department of Licensing program of registering motorists at the same time they apply for a driver’s license. The information gets sent to the Office of the Secretary of State.
If a person has their enhanced driver’s license or identicard canceled because they gave incorrect information, the department must notify the state elections office as it may require removing them from voter rolls.
Under the measure, the state’s Health Benefit Exchange would similarly look to register individuals with their permission.
A Senate bill sought to direct the departments of agriculture, veteran affairs and military to sign up potential voters. There will be negotiations on possibly adding them into the House bill, Hunt said.
One thing coming out of the House bill are required studies on registering people when they are born, and, separately, registering residents when they become naturalized citizens.
Hunt said his committee will remove them before advancing it. Hudgins said he understood but also argued registration is a barrier that should be removed as early as possible.
“People are not quite ready for it,” he said. “We are going to pass automatic voter registration. We’re working through the details.”
Republican House members opposed the bill. Some were concerned about the potential of people who are ineligible to vote still doing so.
“We’re really concerned about security,” said Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw, who tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill. “If you want to discourage voters, make them think the process is broke.”
Some GOP lawmakers objected to studying the idea of registering occurring at birth.
“Washington state is not a petri dish for trying out new voting methods or registration techniques,” he said.
Also Friday, Hunt’s committee considered House Bill 1513 which allows 16- and 17-year-olds to sign up to vote in a new Future Voters Program. Their application would be considered pending and when they become of voting age, they’ll be entered into the voter database, under the bill.
It passed the House on a 52-46 vote Feb. 12.
It also requires each January, on Temperance and Good Citizenship Day, all high schools give those students who will be able to vote in the next general election a chance to register in the classroom. The bill specifically sets a goal of registering at least 50,000 17-and 18-year-olds in this manner in January 2020.
“This is a great opportunity for the students to get more civically engaged,” said Rep. Steve Bergquist, D-Renton, who has sponsored this bill for six years.
Meanwhile Senate Bill 6021 allowing individuals to register and vote on Election Day passed the Senate 29-20 in January. It received a hearing last week in Hudgins committee.
Under the bill, the change would take effect for general election in 2019.
Secretary of State Kim Wyman has repeatedly asked lawmakers to push back the start-up date to the end of 2019 when the agency expects to have a new statewide voter database up and running. This system will enable auditors to verify new registrants on Election Day haven’t registered and voted elsewhere the same day.