They may not qualify to attend an R-rated movie, but soon 16-year-olds in Washington State could register to vote.
Actually vote? No. That civic privilege starts at age 18.
A bill to extend advanced voter registration to 16 year olds has been introduced in the legislature this session and the House Committee on State Government and Tribal Affairs met Jan. 12 to listen to public testimony on the proposal.
No one in the affected age group offered comments.
The proposed bill (HB2205) is co-sponsored by 37 House members, a mixture from both parties, and states that a person who is at least 16, and who is a U.S. citizen, would be able to register to vote. However, that registration would not be recorded in the statewide voter database until the registrant turns 18. The database is an official list of Washington’s registered voters and is maintained by the Secretary of State’s office.
According to the bill (a companion measure dealing with the issue has been introduced in the Senate, SB6128), when registrants reach 18 they would receive a confirmation notice allowing them to vote.
The bill gives the Secretary of State the authority to decide how to implement the early voter registration process.
Currently, the minimum age to register is 17 if the registrant is 18 by the date of the next election.
Rep. Andy Billig (D – 3rd District, Spokane) is one of the bill’s sponsors. He said, “The main goal of the legislation is to provide equal access to voter registration. Right now the young voters do not have the same access to voter registration that other registrants have. The number one way that people register is through the motor-voter program when they get their driver’s license. This is not available to most young voters and as a result that population has very low registration numbers.”
Motor Voter refers to the National Voter Registration Act, passed by Congress in 1993. That act requires states to offer voter registration at departments of licensing when drivers apply for or renew their license. Voters may also register at the Department of Social and Health Services, at local schools, libraries and other government offices. Registration is also available online at the Secretary of State’s website or the form may be downloaded from the website and mailed to registrant’s county elections office.
Katie Blinn, co-director of elections with the Secretary of State’s office, opposes the bill. She believes the legislation places additional costly burdens on her office, including funding for reprogramming of registration software, changes to the registration applications and translation costs.
According to Blinn there are various methods to register to vote, and some of the programs do not accept the information of people who are younger than 17. Those systems would need to be reprogrammed.
During the hearing, Blinn addressed the need for possible programming changes at other departments that interact with the voter database, such as the Department of Licensing (DOL), the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), the voter registration database, county voter registration systems, translation and printing costs for the registration forms, the DOL electronic form, and the DSHS electronic form.
Program Director of Washington Bus Toby Crittenden spoke in favor of the legislation.
Washington Bus is a volunteer-driven youth organization that works to increase democratic participation by registering voters, recruiting volunteers, hosting events and supporting young, progressive candidates.
“It is sort of the first taste of civic life for young people when they go to the Department of Licensing for their driver’s license, and if you’re 18 or older, you register to vote,” said Crittenden. “It’s the exact same operation if you’re a 16 year old. You have the opportunity to actually take that step. What it does is set you up for the rest of your life as a voter, as a civically engaged adult.”
Though proponents argued that voter registration is the cornerstone of democracy, many opponents felt the problem in the legislation isn’t philosophical, but operational.
Chelan County Auditor Skip Moore spoke on behalf of the Washington Association of County Auditors in opposition to the bill. Moore cited mechanical issues with the legislation.
“We’ve talked about young voters and their movement,” said Moore during the public hearing. “They move after they graduate from high school. In that unique time frame between the end of the school year and the fall general election, that’s when they move … They disappear on us, but when we’re working on registration that was set up two years prior, that we’ve held off to the side and that has not been updated, suddenly we come to a November election and we’re trying to contact these young voters and we don’t know where they’re at.”
Billig doesn’t believe the proposed legislation would create such a problem.
“It’s an issue in our current system because we have a focus on registering people right now when they’re 18, which is generally when they’re a senior in high school. There’s some mobility after people turn 18,” said Billig. “This bill doesn’t affect that. This is about registering people when they’re 16 or 17.”
Billig expressed optimism that the bill will pass through the legislative process. He maintains the bill has bipartisan support including fellow sponsor Rep. Hans Zeiger (R – 25th District, Puyallup). If it were to pass, the bill would become effective 90 days after the session adjourns.
The cost of implementing the proposal remains unknown. The legislature would have to appropriate funding if it approves the measure.
Voter Registration Form: