Other Views: Legislature Should Work to Boost Voter Participation

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Democracy thrives on participation.

The Evergreen State has done a great job encouraging people to register to vote, with 4.3 million receiving ballots statewide, according to Washington’s Secretary of State’s office. That’s thanks in part to the convenience of people being able to register to vote when they get their driver’s licenses.

But participation is a different story. Too many people are tossing the ballots mailed to their homes instead of filling them out and making their voices heard. The Nov. 7 election set a record for poor turnout, with more than two-thirds of voters skipping out.

State Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, who chairs the House Committee on State Government, Elections and Information Technology, wants to keep lowering hurdles to get more citizens to vote. Last year the Legislature required counties to install about 250 more ballot drop boxes across the state as an option for voters instead of using a stamp. The drop boxes cost about $7,500 each to purchase and install. This will be money well spent.

A recent study from UW Tacoma found that the inconvenience of voting causes a direct and measurable slowdown of voter turnout. The study found the proximity of a drop box seems to cause a slight increase in participation.

Another promising approach would be to look into the costs and benefits of postage-paid ballot envelopes for those who do not live a short driving distance from a ballot drop box. Hudgins is proposing a statewide study of this issue.

King County ran a small pilot earlier this year to measure the impact of postage-paid ballot envelopes. The pilot involved February special elections in Maple Valley and the Shoreline School District, and an April election in the Vashon Island School District. In the three trial runs, elections officials found that more people chose to return their ballots by mail than drop box — the opposite had been true in previous elections. But even more interesting: about 8 percent more voters returned their ballots than predicted based on previous results.

A wider study will help officials figure out if these results would hold statewide.

Hudgins and other lawmakers have a number of other proposals aimed at increasing both voter registration and participation. Some are a little odd, like pre-registering citizens to vote when they are born. And others are long overdue, like a Washington Voting Rights Act.

The Legislature should find time during the short legislative session, which begins Jan. 8, to address these important issues and make sure democracy is spread far and wide.

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