During my time in the Legislature, I learned that it’s hard for ordinary citizens to participate in democracy. The legislative process is opaque, Olympia is not easy to get to, you have to educate yourself on a wide array of policy and procedures, and you have to carve the time out of your busy schedule to get involved. That’s a lot to ask of a citizen who may be juggling a job (or multiple jobs,) school, and family.
This is not to say I’m down on democracy. I’m such a democracy nerd that I was voted “most likely to be a politician” in high school. I love to vote, I love our representative system, and I love the ideal of an inclusive system. In theory, the rule is this: if you’re an American citizen over the age of 18, you have the right to vote. Period.
But a lot of Washingtonians feel left behind right now. They don’t feel included in the prosperity they see in Seattle’s skyline, and they don’t feel that their representatives are standing up for them. They believe the system is rigged against them. These problems—income inequality and voter frustration—are absolutely linked. When more people vote, elected officials are likely to pass laws for the benefit of the many, not the wealthy few.
That’s why I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the automatic voter registration bill that’s currently being considered in Olympia. We here in Seattle recognize that the key to economic vitality is broad participation—when all restaurant workers earn enough that they can afford to eat in restaurants, everyone from the owners down to the dishwashers will do better. Automatic Voter Registration applies that same inclusive principle to the ballot box.
This commonsensical legislation modernizes the way we interact with our right to vote, essentially transforming the opt-in nature of voting registration to an opt-out model. Basically, whenever a citizen has a point of contact with a state agency—getting a driver’s license, for instance—they will be automatically registered to vote unless they specifically request to be stricken from the rolls.
This is not a fringe issue. Automatic voter registration has already passed in nine states, including the rest of the west coast, Colorado, Georgia, and West Virginia. It’s being considered in 32 other states around the nation. We’re not just fighting over scraps with this law, either: studies show that Washington’s automatic voter registration legislation will likely result in a staggering 90 percent of our eligible voting population being registered by 2025.
Maybe you’re wondering why, in deep blue Seattle, automatic voter registration matters. If Democrats are likely to win anyway, why bother getting more people to the ballot box? As someone who’s run a few campaigns, I can tell you that an inordinate amount of time, money, and effort during election years is spent on voter registration—identifying people who have the right to vote, tracking them down, explaining why they need to register, and actually registering them. If all the energy currently expended on voter registration efforts could be spent in conversation with voters, more of your ideas and perspectives would be reflected in the laws that are passed and what gets funded in budgets.
If you want to prioritize a more inclusive democracy, I urge you to reach out to your state representative and tell them why you want them to prioritize automatic voter registration. Even if you live in Seattle and you know your representatives are on the correct side of the issue, I can tell you from experience that these types of calls matter. They help representatives establish a list of priorities for the session, putting certain issues at the top of the line so they’re not forgotten or deprioritized.
Voting is the most important right that we have. Everything else springs from it. When we broadly include everyone in this right, we take a step toward living up to the promise of American democracy. And when American democracy works as it should, outcomes improve for everyone.
Jessyn Farrell is a former state representative who last year ran for mayor of Seattle.