More than one million eligible Washingtonians are not registered to vote. There’s no chance they will turn in a ballot because they won’t get one through the state’s vote-by-mail system. The first step to ensuring more voices are heard in a democracy is registering eligible citizens to vote. Oregon, Alaska, and eight other jurisdictions have all enacted automatic voter registration (AVR) to make voting as accessible as possible for citizens.
But wait, you say, can’t you already register to vote at the Department of Licensing? (It’s DoL in Washington; people from other state probably know it as the DMV, Department of Motor Vehicles). Sure, but you have to opt in. You have to know its an option and proactively sign up for it. AVR streamlines your experience by automatically registering you unless you opt out. As Oregon has found, the automatic approach registers hundreds of thousands more voters, especially younger voters. AVR takes one part of the hassle out of voting by making voter registration the default, not an extra step.
A new bill in the legislature in Olympia would have Washington state join the AVR club. On reasonable assumptions, the result could be to register an additional million citizens over the next decade who would not otherwise be on the voter rolls. The bill would not register as many citizens as it could by utilizing more than one state agency, but it would be a huge step in empowering Washingtonians to participate in democracy.
HB 2595 would take advantage of Washington’s existing enhanced driver’s license and ID program to support Washingtonians’ right to vote. Since state residents are already required to prove their citizenship to the Department of Licensing when they apply for an enhanced license or ID, the Department would automatically register any Washingtonian who applies for these. Since individuals don’t have to prove citizenship to get a standard driver’s license or ID, the Department wouldn’t automatically register those applicants to vote.
As of June 2017, nearly 667,000 Washingtonians have an enhanced ID card or driver license. If they are registered to vote at the average rate for the state—77 percent of eligible Washingtonians are registered—then, once the AVR bill passes, the Department of Licensing would automatically register to vote the 23 percent who are not already registered, or 154,000 people.
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How many new voters the Department would license each year going forward will depend on two factors:
- How many people choose to get enhanced licenses and IDs each year.
- How many of those people are not yet registered to vote.
Below I set out assumptions for an optimistic estimate and a conservative estimate of how many voters AVR could register in Washington in the next 10 years—from 2018 through 2027.
High Estimate: 115,000 additional voters per year
As Washingtonians get the message that federal facilities will stop accepting standard Washington licenses and IDs in fall 2018, and airports will require an enhanced ID or passport to travel on all flights, including domestic ones, starting in fall 2020, more people will choose to purchase an enhanced license or ID. About 1.4 million Washingtonians get a new or renewed license or ID each year. Let’s say more than one-third opt for enhanced—so an additional 500,000 people would be get enhanced licenses or IDs each year. Assuming 77 percent of those are already registered (the state average), the Department would automatically register the remaining 23 percent, or an additional 115,000 people each year.
Low Estimate: 52,500 additional voters per year
The additional fee of $4 per year more for an enhanced rather than standard ID may discourage most Washingtonians from getting the enhanced IDs. So, a more conservative estimate may be that only one-quarter of those getting new or renewed IDs opt for enhanced—350,000 people per year. Let’s also assume that a person who chooses an enhanced license or ID is also more likely to be registered to vote—say 85 percent are registered, rather than the statewide average of 77 percent. In this case, only 15 percent of enhanced ID recipients would not already registered, leaving the Department to register an additional 52,500 people per year.
Based on these two outside estimates, Automatic Voter Registration through the Washington Department of Licensing could register between 600,000 and 1.2 million Washington voters over the course of 10 years.
Middling Estimate: 84,000 additional voters per year
Halfway between our high and low estimates is 84,000 new Washingtonians registered to vote each year through Automatic Voter Registration at the Department of Licensing. Assuming Washington’s population grows 1 percent a year in coming years, AVR could increase Washington’s voter registration rate from 77 percent to 85 percent.
Other agencies could help
Not everyone gets a driver’s license, much less an enhanced driver’s license, so this bill will still leave many eligible Washingtonians unregistered. That’s why a previous AVR bill would have required several other state agencies to automatically register voters, as Illinois’s AVR law does. The AVR bill currently in front of the state legislature gives those agencies the option to register voters, but without a mandate those agencies are unlikely to take on additional work. Without these agencies’ help, many eligible Washingtonians will continue to find their mail boxes empty come election time—a missed opportunity.
Perhaps legislators will amend the bill to cover all agencies that already confirm residents’ citizenship for one purpose or another. I previously estimated that such a multi-agency approach could add another 5 percent of eligible voters to Washington’s rolls, increasing voter registration rates up to 90 percent, compared with up to 85 percent with the DOL-only approach of HB 2595. Or perhaps after passage, the governor can direct agency heads to seize the opportunity afforded by HB 2595 and begin registering voters just like DOL.
Washington could honor citizens’ right to vote
Democracies work best when everyone has a voice. From city elections to port commissions to state races, citizens can only have a voice if they are registered to vote. By putting citizens on the voter rolls and keeping their information up to date, Washington can get more ballots into the hands of citizens, increasing the chances of high-turnout elections and fair results.