Guest Editorial: Voter Registration – No More Low Hanging Fruit

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By Julie Anderson
Pierce County Auditor

Leaves are turning. The Seahawks are playing. And voter registration events are in full swing. All signs that fall has arrived!

There’s always a big push to register voters before the November election. It’s no accident that National Voter Registration Day is Sept. 26. And now through October, the Pierce County Auditor’s Office is mounting a “500,000 Voters” campaign. We at the county are determined to break the half-million mark for active registered voters.

Washington’s voter registration rate is quite healthy, regularly in the top quartile of the nation. During the 2016 general election we ranked 10th in the nation for voter turnout, with a registration rate of 77.1 percent. Pierce County followed very closely with 76.8 percent voter registration.

We shouldn’t rest on our laurels. Voter registration is the first necessary step toward voting and it deserves attention.

If Pierce County already has 77 percent of its voting age population registered, how can we reach the remaining 23 percent? Sorry folks. It’s impossible for Pierce County to attain a 100 percent registration rate for its voting age population.

Voting age population isn’t the same as voting eligible population. Some of our 23 percent unregistered residents may not be U.S. citizens. They may be foreign nationals who have a green card or visa. Others may be in prison. Some may be from out-of-state, here to attend college or serve their county at JBLM (students and service members often maintain their registration in their home state). And finally, some voting age citizens are mentally incapacitated.

If we narrow our focus to the voting eligible population, you’ll find that we’ve registered roughly 83 percent of the eligible population. That leaves just 17 percent eligible adults to register. The low hanging fruit has been harvested. We’re going to need a ladder to reach the rest!

The legislature and election administrators are considering several different solutions:

Automatic registration

16 and 17-year old preregistration

Same-day registration

Automatic registration refers to the enrollment of people who aren’t on the voter rolls but have obtained:

An enhanced driver’s license or commercial driver’s license

Social services that verify citizenship.

Health insurance through the state health exchange.

All of these documents (unlike a plain old driver’s license) require proof of citizenship. Upon enrollment, the Secretary of State’s Office would send opt-out notifications to prospective registrants and allow 60-days to opt-out.

Sixteen and 17-year old preregistration is an expansion of Motor Voter. When teens are applying for their driver’s license, they’d be offered the same sign-up as adults, with a few caveats:

Teens would not be sent ballots or allowed to vote until they are 18 years old.

Preregistration information would be exempt from public disclosure requirements.

Same-day registration does exactly what it says. Eligible unregistered citizens could go to the Auditor’s Office on Election Day, register to vote, and then cast a ballot. Fifteen states allow some variation of same-day registration.

As election administrators evaluate these options, everyone should keep in mind that voter registration doesn’t necessarily result in better turnout. As our voter registration universe grows, our turnout will drop.

The fact of the matter is that people must want to vote. Voter registration deserves our attention, but motivating people to return a ballot, even in the effortless State of Washington, is the greater challenge.

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