Washington State House Democrats


Democrats’ efforts to expand voter access and civic participation blocked by Senate Republicans

OLYMPIA – In an effort to reverse record-low voter turnouts, House Democrats have passed, and Senate Democrats have sponsored and supported, several bills this year which would expand voter access and promote civic participation, only to have those bills blocked by Senate Republicans.

The Washington Voting Right Act, automatic voter registration, a bill to allow motor voter preregistration for 16 and 17 year olds, and a measure that would have streamlined voter registration deadlines, were all passed by the House but blocked in the Republican controlled Senate. These are all bills designed to ease, simplify, and maximize a fundamental American freedom – voters’ access to the ballot.

“Voting is the most basic right in any democracy and all citizens should have unimpeded and equal access to the ballot box,” said Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane). “There is no reason why we couldn’t have done more this session to improve voter participation. This is an issue that should transcend party politics. This is about strengthening our democracy.”

Billig was the Senate’s prime sponsor of legislation that would allow motor-voter preregistration for 16- and 17-year olds. A similar measure passed the House this year with a bipartisan majority.

“We need to remember it is the right to vote, not the privilege to vote. Once again House Democrats’ efforts to expand access to voting was stymied by the Senate Republicans,” said House State Government Committee Chair Rep. Sam Hunt (D-Olympia) who is also the prime sponsor of an automatic voter registration bill that passed the House with a bipartisan majority. “It is frustrating to witness their efforts to block every reasonable measure to ensure that every person’s right to vote is realized – this has the effect of suppressing access to voting by qualified individuals, especially young people and people of color. We need to remove barriers to voter registration and elections; unfortunately, Senate Republicans appear to find all these ideas contrary to their political values.”

Sen. Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle) authored and prime-sponsored the automatic voter registration bill in the Senate. If enacted, the proposal would automatically register eligible voters who have an enhanced driver’s license or a commercial driver’s license, or are covered through the state health benefits board or certain programs in the Department of Social and Health Services. The state has already verified the citizenship of these people.

“Access to voting is the foundation of a healthy democracy, and as such voting rights should not be a partisan issue,” said Jayapal, who was also the lead negotiator of the Washington Voting Rights Act in the Senate. “It is deeply disappointing that another year has gone by and Senate Republicans continue to refuse to pass good, common-sense legislation that will help Washingtonians – young and old and in all corners of our state – exercise their right to have their voice heard. No matter what party you belong to, everyone deserves a chance to make a stand and have that stance make a difference. It is past time to pass these bills, but we’ll keep up the fight.”

Washington has seen record low voter turnout in recent years. The lowest voter turnout for a midterm election in Washington in over 40 years occurred in 2014, with only 54 percent of registered voters submitting a ballot and only 40 percent of the voting age population taking part in that election. Democrats in Olympia have been proposing reasonable solutions to this problem, only to have those proposals rejected by Senate Republicans.

“Voting is one of the most sacred activities we take part in,” said Rep. Luis Moscoso (D-Bothell). “Our voting rights cannot be fully realized if our access to the polls is limited.”

Moscoso was the prime sponsor of the Washington Voting Rights Act.

The Washington Voting Rights Act is a comprehensive piece of legislation to address the issue of polarized voting. Many types of local governments cannot, under current state law, voluntarily change their method of election to ensure all people have an equal opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice. This bill empowers them to voluntarily change their electoral system, and provides numerous measures to enable municipalities to avoid expensive federal litigation and negotiate equitable agreements between voters and local governments.

The House State Government Committee heard powerful testimony on the Voting Right Act this year by newly elected Yakima City Mayor Avina Gutiérrez and Councilmember Carmen Méndez. The pair shared their story about how the switch to district elections made it possible for them to become Yakima’s first Latino councilmembers ever, in a city that is 40 percent Hispanic.