Washington State is leading again on another pressing civic issue. Earlier this year, Democrats in Olympia introduced legislation that would “automatically register eligible voters who have an enhanced drivers license, commercial driver’s license or apply for benefits for certain programs through the Department of Social and Health Services or the state Health Benefits Exchange.”
This proposal passed the state House (controlled by Democrats) but has since been bottled up in the Republican-controlled Senate. Washington’s secretary of state, Kim Wyman (R) is a supporter of the law, but admits that “there are very, very long odds right now” for its success.
How has this come to pass? How can Republicans actually stand in the way of this legislation? Automatic voter registration shouldn’t be a policy which is considered “partisan” in a thriving democracy. Yet here we are in 2016 with the Republican party (both locally and federally) opposed to any suggestion of increased democratic participation. Their arguments against this “liberal” proposal are hardly unfamiliar. They claim it is an example of creeping “big government” and warn that adopting such a policy would lead to a “slippery slope” where it would “eventually lead to compulsory voting and fining people who don’t turn out, like in Australia.”
As per usual, these arguments have little basis in reality and only prey on fear and philosophical fallacies. If opponents of voter registration actually cared about the truth, they would have seen that the proposed registration law actually gives citizens the opportunity to opt out. Our neighbor to the south, Oregon, did just that. It’s worth reading about the success of their registration law in full:
Oregon began implementing its program through the state’s DMV at the beginning of the year, and through the first six weeks, 7 percent of people who received cards alerting them to their new registration returned the cards asking to be taken off the rolls. But the state registered more than 10,000 new voters over that same time period, dwarfing the monthly average of 2,000 new registrations it previously reported. Officials have projected that as many as 300,000 new voters could be added to the 2.2 million already signed up in Oregon.
That sounds really promising. So you’d expect Sec. Kim Wyman to ditch her partisan lens and tell her Republican colleagues that their obstructionism is absolutely unfounded. However, she gives her colleagues a pass and uses another logical fallacy to protect her party from looking intransigent and petty. Wyman gives a textbook example of false equivalency:
I have met many Democrats that are convinced that Republicans are trying to keep their party from voting, and I’ve met many Republicans that are convinced that Democrats are cheating. And it’s really hard to convince either side otherwise.
Talk about a specious statement. On the one hand, there is hardly any proof of widespread voting fraud (see John Oliver’s comedic take on this issue). In fact a comprehensive investigation of voter impersonation found 31 credible incidents out of one billion ballots cast. If the Democrats are, in fact, “cheating” - my goodness, they suck at it.
Yet on the other hand, there are real, demonstrable examples of voter disenfranchisement in the USA today, as well as historically low records of voter turnout. Yet, Wyman makes it sound like each party’s qualms are one and the same. She must know better than that. Which leaves us with two possible conclusions that can explain Wyman’s position: she’s either completely ignorant about the issue or she’s falsely equating concerns in order to protect her Republican colleagues. I wonder.
What’s more, even if she did honestly believe both concerns cancelled the each other out, wouldn’t she want to err on the side of higher voter participation? Especially since she’s overseen an incredible drop in voter turnout during her time as secretary of state. Just look at this graphic to see the deplorable state of voting in Washington.
With automatic voter registration, Washington has an amazing opportunity to bolster democratic participation, while also encouraging other states to lead on this important civic right. From gay marriage to marijuana legalization to universal background checks, Washington has set the pace for the nation many times before. It’s all well and good for Kim Wyman to support automatic voter registration (coincidentally during an election year!), but in order for her support to sound like more than just a self-serving election promise, she cannot continue to provide credibility to Republicans’ erroneous and egregious claims about voter fraud. If she continues to do so, she will be putting party loyalty over the truth.