Written By Abigail Doerr, Engagement Coordinator
The Washington Bus
Political pundits and experts often make the inaccurate assumption that because young people are statistically less engaged in elections, they simply don’t care about politics or the many issues facing American society today. At the non-profit the Washington Bus, we like to walk folks through a hypothetical scenario: Your friend is throwing a party. She doesn’t invite any young people to the party. To her surprise/dismay, young people don’t show up to the party. You hear her decrying these “apathetic” young people who “don’t care about engaging in delightful conversation with me and eating my delicious snacks.” This (silly, I admit) scenario is not just a recipe for a boring evening, it is actually a pretty good parable for our elections process. The truth is, when it comes to the party that is our elections process, young people are rarely, if ever, invited to participate. The Washington Bus sees the challenge before us as one of access, not apathy. Access to a political system that can, and should, meet us where we are.
The Bus takes this challenge on in two ways: 1) we offer ways for young people to engage in politics on their own terms, and 2) we actually invite young people into the proverbial party year round (not just in early November).
The Bus works across the state to educate and train young leaders, register and turn out thousands of young voters, and identify policies that can modernize our elections to keep pace with a fast-paced world. In 2012, we partnered with organizations around the state to register nearly 15,000 young Washington voters. And they voted! The young people who registered with the Bus voted at 81%, right on par with the statewide average. Young people participated in the general election at historic rates, defying the predictions of pundits and experts nationwide. While 15,000 new voters is a terrific achievement, there are hundreds of thousands of young and lower income Washington voters that we, as a small organization, simply cannot reach. However, there are simple solutions and the Washington State Legislature has the opportunity to take action to provide access to voting to marginalized communities.
In this legislative session, several bills offered a tremendous opportunity to invite young, low income, and people of color into the process. Simple and low cost systematic changes to our election system can bring 10s of thousands of young voters into our elections process.
One barrier that prevents young and low-income people from voting is their mobility and relative transience compared to more stable populations. Updating voter registration is often not the first priority to unstable populations. There are simple and basic solutions to these problems that have been proposed in Olympia. These bills cover extending voter registration deadlines, implementing a pre-registration program for 16 and 17 year-olds, and establishing standards for districting in municipal elections to ensure that every voice is heard in the community.
Extending Voter Registration Deadlines: In an all vote by mail state ensuring your voter registration is up to date is absolutely crucial. This is particularly challenging for young and low-income people who on average move once every three years. As it stands the current voter registration deadline prevents thousands of people from participating in our elections. In 2008, 6 million Americans did not vote because they missed a registration deadline or did not know how to register.
Creating Pre-Registration Programs: This proposal would allow 16 and 17 year-olds the opportunity to pre-register to vote at the Department of Licensing. With pre-registration, nothing would change for the young people nervously taking their driver’s tests. However, on the day they turn 18, the information they submitted at the DOL would go active, and they would instantly become a registered, active voter. 40% of all voter registrations come from the Department of Licensing. Young people typically visit the DOL when they are 16 to get their first drivers license but at that time they are ineligible to register to vote. By age 21, when licenses are renewed, these young people have already missed at least 9 elections.
The Washington State Voting Rights Act: The Washington State Voting Rights Act would establish standards for districting in municipal elections where some communities and voting blocs have been systematically excluded in at-large voting systems. These systems can often result in unequal access to representation in local governments, which may translate into an unequal distribution of resources for basic public services like roads, sidewalks, and streetlight maintenance in entire communities.
Young, lower income and people of color are systematically excluded from the most traditional means of political participation – from how we register to vote, to how politicians and political groups invite people to vote. We don’t fit into the equation. State Representative Marcus Riccelli from Spokane said it well, “The future is bright in Washington State. Let’s open doors for young people.” When our legislators are committed and invested in providing opportunities for increased participation in our democratic process, the better that process will be. Every eligible voter deserves the opportunity to cast a ballot, and as a state, we will be stronger if every eligible voter does just that.