Voting shouldn’t be hard.
That simple four word sentence is a complaint I repeatedly hear from people when I ask them about participating in our state and our country’s democratic process.
Ever since the United States achieved independence from Britain, expanding suffrage has been a paramount goal of hardworking activists from every corner of the country. Today, many people take the right for granted, and don’t even bother to exercise it.
We saw record turnout in the 2008 presidential election, but that was because of unprecedented interest in picking the next person to hold the highest office in the land. Now it’s 2009, and we have the task of choosing who will lead us at the local level for the next few years.
The decisions we’ll make in this August’s primary election, and this November’s general election, are no less important to our future than the decisions we made last autumn.
Unfortunately, because interest is likely to be diminished, turnout won’t even be close to what it was last year. Which leads to this question: Why have we created barriers to democratic participation that can only be surpassed by extraordinarily high voter interest in the outcome?
Voting shouldn’t be hard. It shouldn’t. Yet we’ve made it so, for no good reason.
Consider that anyone wanting to participate in our democracy and exercise their right to vote must first register before they are eligible to cast a ballot.
The onus of registration is on the citizen; while there are civic-minded history teachers and political groups out there who work tirelessly to get people registered (especially young people) the question remains: Why require people to register at all? Why does somebody have to go to the Department of Licensing or the county auditor’s office to fill out a form in order to vote? We do have online voter registration now — thanks to Secretary of State Sam Reed — but still, why make people fill out forms?
None of this is to say we shouldn’t have voter rolls. But why make people add themselves? It gets worse.
We actually have laws in Washington State that make it impossible to register to vote on Election Day. There’s a cutoff beforehand. So, if somebody who’s just turned 18 and didn’t think about registering in advance suddenly decides in early November that they want to vote, they can’t.
Then there’s the difficulty of keeping a registration current. People who move to a new address are responsible for updating their registration; if they don’t, eventually it’s going to get purged from the voter rolls. It should not be necessary to re-register to vote after moving. It’s an extra hassle for the voter, and it leads to outdated, inaccurate rolls.
The Legislature recently took a step towards fixing this problem with the passage of SB 5270, a bill that directs county auditors to transfer voter registrations if they receive notice from the Postal Service of an address change.
This is a welcome improvement, but the bill also contained a provision that changes the updated registration to “inactive” until a voter “reactivates” it.
What is the point of such barriers?
Instead of creating hoops that Washingtonians have to jump through in order to be able to vote, our Legislature should get to work on making the Evergreen State the first in the nation to have true automatic voter registration.
The technology is in place to make such a system possible; for example, the state now has a central voter database maintained by the Secretary of State, and SB 5270 makes it possible for a voter’s registration information to migrate with them when they move within the state.
Any Washingtonian over 18 who applies for a license to drive should be automatically added to the rolls, and those not of age should be automatically added on their eighteenth birthdays, unless they explicitly opt not to.
It should also be possible for anyone who is eligible to register at any time — even on Election Day — if they don’t happen to be already.
Our election laws should be based on the assumption that people want to vote, not that they don’t want to. Automatic voter registration is just what we need to break down the modern- day barriers to voting that are artificially dampening voter turnout and hurting the vibrancy of our democracy.
Andrew Villeneuve, a 2005 Redmond High graduate, is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, a Redmond-based grassroots organization. Villeneuve can be reached at email@example.com.