OLYMPIA – Voting rights legislation proposed by Democratic lawmakers aims to boost election turnout for young and low-income voters and enhance representation in communities often left out in political affairs.
One bill would allow local governments to change their local election processes without going through court; the other would extend the voter registration period and allow same-day in-person registration.
Both bills have versions in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The two bills in the House were heard on Tuesday, Jan. 9 and the two bills in the Senate were heard on Wednesday Jan. 10.
Officials and student group leaders from Yakima showed strong support for two bills at the Senate version of the proposal’s hearing on Wednesday, Jan. 10 in Olympia.
Putting the power in the hands of local government has already proven more equitable in Yakima, said Dulce Gutierrez, deputy mayor of Yakima. In 2014, a federal court ordered the city to change its city council elections to a district-based system rather than an at-large system which the court said disenfranchised Latino voters. Many low-income and often minority voters in Yakima are divided by districts. The district-based voting, Gutierrez said, gave more of a voice to those historically disenfranchised.
Gutierrez said electing city council members by district has also helped more women get elected and emphasized the importance of diversity in leadership roles.
“When there isn’t diversity at the table there are going to be some people whose experiences are excluded while creating policy,” she said. “I truly believe in having a representative government and that means we need to have a balance of all genders, incomes, educational backgrounds and experiences in life.”
At the hearing for the House version of the bill on Tuesday, Jan. 9, Washington Secretary of State, Republican Kim Wyman, expressed reservations. She said components of the bill could result in voters receiving up to four different ballots in general elections.
This, she said, would confuse voters and lead to lower overall turnout.
Impoverished communities like some areas in Yakima’s District One, where Gutierrez is from, face challenges in turning out voters. She said residents in those communities are often mobile and need to register new addresses often. Many people have difficulty doing so in time to meet the standard 29-day cut off before elections. Often people are more focused on immediate needs of taking care of family, holding jobs, and going to school and they forget to register until the week or day of the election, Gutierrez said.
The second bill addresses this. It would phase in an extended period of voter registration by mail or electronically up to eight days before an election and authorizes same-day registration in person at the county Auditor’s office.
“This will increase voter turnout significantly and that will likely be similar throughout the state,” Gutierrez said.
Often, young people don’t vote until election week or the last minute, according to Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson. She said at Senate hearing on Wednesday, Jan. 10, that her office estimates the bill would lead to a 5 to 10 percent increase in voter turnout on Election Day.
Wyman voiced her concerns regarding extending the voter registration period during the House hearing. She suggested the online and mail registrations should be submitted 11 days before the election and received by eight days before the election. She also suggested phasing in the changes so that the new voter registration is in place before an election cycle.
Oskar Zambrano, executive director of Progreso, Latino Progress, urged lawmakers to consider the bill’s impacts on small communities. He spoke on behalf of Dalia Estevez, a 25-year-old assisted living nurse and student at Yakima Valley Community College who is involved in Progreso. Zambrano read a statement written by Estevez to the lawmakers.
Estevez said she was originally too concerned with providing for her family and applying to colleges to be active in politics. After three Latino candidates ran for city offices in Yakima, she was able to meet with them during their campaigns.
“They were speaking to me as a person, as an immigrant, and as a young Latina in a white-dominated world,” she wrote.
After that, she got many of her fellow students at Yakima Valley Community College involved in local politics. She said an extended voter registration period would help many young Latinos ensure their voices are heard.
Rosa Rice-Pelepko, Western Washington University student legislative liaison, urged lawmakers to consider a large number of students who do not feel connected to their representatives or engaged in local politics. She said a way to fight this is to ensure elected officials can understand and represent historically disenfranchised communities; often communities of color.
Support for the two bills also came from Washington state leaders. Rashelle Davis from the office of the Governor, and Marsha Chien from the office of the Attorney General testified in support of both the voting rights bill and the extended voter registration bill at the Senate hearing on Wednesday, Jan. 10.
They say neither bill changes eligibility requirements or weaken verification systems.
Taylor McAvoy is a reporter with the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.