Automatically registering voters

One of the ideas behind the National Voter Registration Act in 1993, also known as “Motor Voter,” was that it would allow people to register to vote when they applied for or renewed a driver’s licenses. That remains, although it’s not automatic because prospective voters have to show proof of citizenship, and applicants for Washington state driver’s licenses aren’t required to show they are U.S. citizens or are in the U.S. legally.

That may change, if Washington, like other states, accepts all requirements of the federal REAL ID Act, passed in 2005, that set security and other standards for state driver’s licenses and identification cards, including proof of citizenship or other legal status. For a variety of reasons, adoption of some of the federal act’s requirements in Washington state has been met with opposition on the left and the right.

But it’s not without consequence. Currently, Washington state driver’s licenses, on their own, aren’t enough for admittance to most military bases, including the Navy bases in Everett and Oak Harbor. Earlier this year, Washington and other states were given a waiver by the Department of Homeland Security that will allow those residents to use their driver’s licenses to board airliners without a passport for domestic flights, but only until 2018.

Both California and Oregon, who have complied with the REAL ID Act, passed laws last year that require automatic voter registration for driver’s license applicants.

Unable to join her West Coast brethren, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman is hoping to use another provision in the Motor Voter Act to increase voter registration. The federal law allows the governor to designate other state agencies to implement automatic voter registration. Legislation in the House (HB 2682) and Senate (SB 6379) and supported by Wyman, would allow for automatic voter registration at five state agencies — the Department of Health, the Department of Services for the Blind, the Department of Social and Health Services, the Health Benefit Exchange and the Health Care Authority — as each already confirms proof of citizenship of those applying for benefits or assistance.

Voter registration can be declined, but otherwise the applicant’s information will be sent to the Secretary of State’s office for confirmation, then passed on to auditors in the voter’s county of residence.

Wyman isn’t counting on automatic registration to vastly increase the state’s voter rolls, but it’s another incremental step in getting more people registered to vote. Wyman is hopeful the program will be up and running this year in time for the presidential election when voter turnout generally is higher.

It’s not Wyman’s only method for building the voter rolls. Each year for the last four years, her office has sent postcards to residents not registered to vote, encouraging them to register online or through their county auditor’s office.

Some have questioned the wisdom of registering voters who may not be especially motivated to vote; that such efforts can drive down voter turnout percentages.

Wyman doesn’t see that happening. What the legislation will do, she said, is remove another barrier to voting, remove another excuse.

After that, it’s up to voters to get their ballots in.

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