Historic reforms will increase access to democracy, protect integrity of elections

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Summer is just around the corner, but a freeze is about to kick in for state legislators. Beginning Monday, May 14 – the first day of candidate filing week – my legislative web site will be “frozen” until the 2018 election has been certified. I won’t be posting any new content or sending out any unsolicited legislative mailings.

The election year freeze is part of the state’s 1995 Ethics in Public Service Act. Its purpose is to make sure public resources aren’t used to assist political campaigns. The law ensures elected officials don’t campaign on the public’s dime. 

Speaking of elections, this session lawmakers passed several historic election reforms that will increase voter participation and improve representation. The right to vote is central to our democracy, and while some states try to make it harder for people to vote, Washington is making it easier for those eligible to vote to do so, while preserving the integrity and security of the voting process.

Called the “Access to Democracy” package, Democrats led the way in sponsoring these bills, although many of them passed with bipartisan support. 

Making registering to vote easier increases voter participation. While our state’s motor voter law has been helpful in this regard, current law has a 29-day registration deadline prior to an election. In our technological age, this seems unreasonably long. In 2016, more than one million eligible Washingtonians were not registered to vote. How many of them tried to register 28 or 27 or two days before the election, only to find out they missed the deadline and couldn’t vote?

Lawmakers fixed that problem by passing same-day voter registration. Under the new law, a person can register to vote in person until 8 p.m. on Election Day, or online or via mail up to eight days before the election. It’s how I first registered to vote when I was a college student in Madison, Wisc., where it resulted in a 10-percent increase in voter turnout. I’m hopeful it will do the same in Washington.

We passed an automatic voter registration bill that registers anyone receiving an enhanced driver’s license from the state Department of Licensing. It includes important protections to prevent those ineligible to vote from being registered. Not only does it make registration more efficient, it saves money over processing paper registration forms. 

The earlier you begin voting, the better chance you have of becoming a regular voter. So a new law will enable eligible 16- and 17-year olds to pre-register to vote. Once they turn 18, their ballot will automatically be mailed without having to register again. In March, I spoke at the March For Our Lives Tacoma event, which was organized by local youth – some as young as middle school age. I can tell you they are paying attention to what’s happening in the world around them and want their voices heard. I am so glad we’ve made it easier for them to register.

In the representation realm, we passed the Washington Voting Rights Act this year. Modeled after the federal Voting Rights Act, it allows communities systemically disenfranchised in local elections to work collaboratively with their local governing bodies on remedies, rather than through costly litigation. It ensures communities have an equal opportunity to have their voices heard. We’ve already seen this happen in Yakima, where the switch from citywide to district-based voting resulted in the election of the first three Latina city councilmembers. Unfortunately, it took a lawsuit to bring that change to Yakima. The Washington Voting Rights Act provides an easier and cheaper way for cities to voluntarily move to district-based voting without going to court. 

In the transparency realm, we passed a nation-leading law that shines a light on hidden money in elections. The DISCLOSE Act will ensure campaign finance disclosure by nonprofits that participate in elections. These organizations have been exempt from disclosure until now, while other political action committees are not. Voters deserve to know this information.

Finally, we passed a measure to improve election security and the auditing of elections in our state. It requires vendors of voting systems to disclose security breaches, and requires the secretary of state to investigate the cause of discrepancies found in election audits. Voters should have confidence not only in the elections process, but in the outcome. 

All of these bills will increase participation, transparency, and security in our state elections. Washington is leading the way on promoting better access to democracy.

Although I won’t be updating my legislative website or sending out newsletters during this election season, I will continue responding to constituent calls and e-mails. If you have questions or concerns about legislative matters, I encourage you to reach out to me at (253) 593-2033 or laurie.jinkins@leg.wa.gov. I look forward to hearing from you.

Laurie Jinkins is a public health official from Tacoma who serves as a member of the Washington House of Representatives from the 27th district.

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