Inslee signs bills to improve state’s democratic process

Legislation includes automatic voter registration, Washington Voting Rights Act

Gov. Jay Inslee signs bills in the Access to Democracy package on Monday, March 19, 2018, at Foster High School in Tukwila. (Office of the Governor photo)

Gov. Jay Inslee today signed five bills — dubbed the Access to Democracy package — to improve voter access and strengthen democracy in Washington state.

Three of the bills make it easier to register to vote, allowing people to register up to and on Election Day, letting 16- and 17-year-olds pre-register to vote, and creating automatic voter registration for citizens obtaining enhanced driver’s licenses or identification cards through the Department of Licensing.

These measures aim to address the low participation rate in elections. More than 1 million Washingtonians were eligible to register to vote in 2016 but didn’t, and of those registered, nearly 1 in 5 didn’t vote. The November 2017 General Election set a record low for voter turnout — only 37 percent of voters returned their ballots.

“That’s nearly 2 million voices going unheard in our state’s democratic process,” Inslee said during a bill-signing ceremony at Foster High School in Tukwila. “Democracy is served when more people participate. I’m proud to be able to say that Washington state is doing everything we can to help make sure that every community, every voice and every vote counts.”

Another bill signed by Inslee, the Washington Voting Rights Act, will promote more equal representation by allowing district-based elections or other alternative voting systems to best suit individual communities.

Fair representation was recently an issue in Yakima, where nearly 40 percent of the population is Latino, yet no Latinos had ever been elected to the city council.

The U.S. District Court found in 2014 that Yakima’s at-large voting system was disenfranchising Latino voters and diluting their voting power. Yakima moved to a district-based election in 2015, and three Latinas were elected that same year. The act Inslee signed allows other communities to take similar actions.

For some of these policies, their passage has been the result of a six-year effort.

Sen. Rebecca Saldaña of Seattle was the primary sponsor of the Washington Voting Rights Act in the 2018 Legislature.

“The Washington Voting Rights Act puts power back into the hands of the people where it belongs,” Saldaña said. “It will empower disenfranchised communities, and people of color, to elect leaders that reflect their values and the rich diversity of our state. This is a big step forward in realizing a truly representative government.”

Inslee also signed the DISCLOSE Act. It requires nonprofit organizations that donate more than $10,000 a year to political campaigns to register with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission and publicly report their contributions. DISCLOSE is short for “Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections.”

“Voters have the right to know who’s paying for a campaign. Whatever you care about in your community, whether it be healthcare, education, or any other issue, it is vital to know who is paying to influence those who are making our laws,” said Sen. Andy Billig of Spokane, the DISCLOSE Act’s primary sponsor. “The Washington DISCLOSE Act shines a light on dark money, which creates better informed voters, increases accountability, and reduces the opportunity for corruption, all of which results in a stronger democracy.”

Inslee was joined at the bill signing by elected, community and student leaders. They included Foster senior Maria Alvarez, who expressed hope that the new voter registration measures would get more young Washingtonians involved in the democratic process.

“Issues that impact the lives of us young people are real, and they must be addressed,” she said. “I want to make the change that I agree with and not have others make decisions for me. I have opinions, I want change, and I want to make a difference with my voice.”