This past Tuesday was National Voter Registration Day. If you missed it, don't panic. There's still time to be counted in this November's election. You have until Oct. 9 to register or update your voting address online, and until Oct. 30 to do so in your nearest elections office. With high-stakes races being won by narrow margins and Jim Crow-style voter ID laws passing in some states, voter disenfranchisement is a hot topic these days.
Americans need to feel confident that our voices are being heard. Those who are least represented among us — people of color, recent immigrants, people with disabilities, young people and folks living in rural areas — need a voting system that reflects the imperative of their full involvement.
Our democracy is built on robust participation. With a multiplicity of opinions, policy decisions are more informed, and we elect legislators who are more likely to be accountable to our communities. This patriotic vision defines our freedom. But far too often, government disproportionately represents those with the most privilege: wealthy, white, able-bodied men born on American soil. This is true in Washington state, despite the large communities of Latino, Asian and Asian-Pacific Islanders, and African-American folks who call Washington home. In its 128 years as a state, Washington has only had 12 state legislators of Native American descent. Something is horribly wrong with this picture.
Mail-in ballot systems and drop boxes in urban areas are convenient, but they don't do enough to serve all communities. We need more inclusive solutions, such as automatic voter registration, or AVR, to promote strong participation. AVR simply allows eligible Americans to register to vote or update their address when interacting with a government service, like during a trip to the DMV or a visit to City Hall. AVR is secure, accurate and keeps voter rolls up to date.
We know that AVR is already working for many Americans. Ten states and the District of Columbia have approved it, some with strong bipartisan support. After AVR was implemented in Oregon, 375,000 eligible voters were added to the rolls in less than a year and a half. Of that number registered before the 2016 presidential election, 40,000 new voters, previously declared "disengaged" or unlikely to participate, voted last November. Overall, Oregon's voter rolls became more representative of the population, including a greater percentage of rural, low-income and ethnically diverse voters in their ranks.
With AVR and other crucial changes (such as paid postage for all ballots, which would eliminate what is essentially a poll tax), our state's voting system would be more accessible for every Washingtonian. When more voices are heard, we are all better off.
Those who have been politically marginalized have as much of a stake in how our state and country is run as anyone else. To build stronger communities, we need to stand with our neighbors and fight together for a real, representative democracy for all. ♦
Mariah McKay is a fourth-generation daughter of Spokane and a community organizer campaigning for racial, social and economic justice. She has worked in biotech and government and currently serves as a public health advocate.