OLYMPIA - A proposal to make voting mandatory drew criticisms from two thousand people in a Legislative hearing Jan. 25.
“We are already in a moment of extreme distrust in elections, so you should not be doing anything to further that perception,” said Sharon Damoff.
Lawmakers mainly dismissed the large number of people signing on to testify, as they believed one organization was responsible.
“The election deniers have ramped up this year,” Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, said. “Conservative Ladies of Washington, they've got these mass emails asking people to sign up.”
Hunt is supporting a bill to make voting mandatory. The proposal was introduced last year but died in committee.
SB5209 requires all eligible voters to register to vote and return their ballots, with two main exceptions.
If eligible voters do not wish to register to vote, they can submit a waiver without any excuse or explanation. County auditors would be in charge of reviewing waivers.
Also, registered voters may return a blank ballot. They do not have to choose a candidate or fill anything in. They are just required to send it back. This was primarily put in place to address concerns of people not wanting to vote for any candidates or initiatives on a ballot.
People who opposed mandatory voting expressed a number of broad criticisms. They worried uninformed people would not take it seriously, that illegal immigrants might be able to vote, that blank ballots could somehow be manipulated or that the process could encourage “ballot harvesting.”
Hunt emphasized that ballots would go only to eligible voters who were registered.
Alongside the civic duty voting bill is a voter verification bill, SB6269. It sets up a pilot project to test other options for ballot verification other than signatures. County auditors can opt into this and suggest other forms of verification to test, but participation is not required.
If approved, the test would be conducted over the next four years. The Secretary of State (SOS) would be required to submit results in 2028.
“We understand certain communities of voters have ballots rejected at higher rates,” Brian Hatfield of the SOS’s office said. Hatfield said the bill would also address voting challenges faced by disabled persons and in general, make voting more accessible.
Sen. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, prime sponsor, emphasized the test would not affect big elections. Still, people took issue.
El’ona Kearny, ex-Army intelligence officer, current candidate for Governor, and resident of Seattle, spoke against the bill. She described her family's experience of distrusting the verification of their ballots in 2020.
“Forcing our communities to vote only aggravates the problem, making us feel part of a system set on harvesting our votes illegally,” Kearny said.
Kearny and others said they wished the state would return to in-person voting.
Supporting the bill were King County Elections and the Latino Community Fund.
If adopted, Washington would be the first in the nation to make voting mandatory. Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, and Minnesota are currently exploring the idea. Twenty-six democracies around the world have a system of mandatory voting, according to Miles Rapoport, Executive Director of 100% Democracy and a former Connecticut Secretary of State.
“We’re starting a major discussion in the country, and I am delighted that Washington is in the forefront of this,” Rapoport said.
The bill notes that anyone who “intentionally disenfranchises another voter by completing a waiver in the voter's name commits a misdemeanor,” but no penalty is defined.
“We talked about a $50 fine or five hours of community service,” Hunt said. “I just don’t know what a workable solution is. We haven’t figured out the magic bullet if there needs to be a magic bullet.”
Hunt said they will continue exploring ideas but that countries like Australia who have implemented a fine, rarely have to use it.
“We're struggling with ways to increase voter turnout,” Hunt said. “We know that who is on the ballot is a prime driver, but when 62% of people choose not to send in a ballot, that really isn’t majority rule. I guess it’s a majority saying ‘We don't care’ but that doesn’t help the government. That doesn’t help democracy.”
Hunt was referring to Thurston County’s most recent election for county and port commissioners, where the turnout was 38%.
The Washington State Journal is a non-profit news website funded by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.
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