Young voters at King County Elections
Young voters at King County Elections

Young peo­ple who are sev­en­teen years of age but would turn eigh­teen by Gen­er­al Elec­tion Day would be allowed to vote in pres­i­den­tial pri­maries and Top Two elec­tions under leg­is­la­tion that received final approval today in the Wash­ing­ton State Sen­ate. ESB 6313, prime spon­sored by Sen­a­tor Marko Liias, is now on its way to Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee after receiv­ing an affir­ma­tive con­cur­rence vote.

Known as the VOTE (Vot­ing Oppor­tu­ni­ties Through Edu­ca­tion) Act, ESB 6313 is a fol­low-up to the Democ­ra­cy Access Pack­age pre­vi­ous­ly approved by leg­is­la­tors in the 2018 short ses­sion. It makes three impor­tant changes to state law:

  • Allows per­sons to vote in a pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry or Top Two elec­tion if they are sev­en­teen years old, but will be eigh­teen by the gen­er­al election.
  • Requires that the Depart­ment of Licens­ing pro­vide an auto­mat­ed process for six­teen and sev­en­teen year olds to sign up to reg­is­ter to vote.
  • Requires that pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, if request­ed by the stu­dent gov­ern­ment, and cer­tain pub­lic uni­ver­si­ty branch cam­pus­es open stu­dent engage­ment hubs to pro­vide ballots.

The VOTE Act has two effec­tive dates. Most of the leg­is­la­tion takes effect Jan­u­ary 1st, 2022. Some pro­vi­sions will take effect Sep­tem­ber 1st, 2023. The entire bill will be in effect before vot­ing begins in the 2024 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cycle.

Repub­li­cans refused to sup­port the leg­is­la­tion in both the Sen­ate and the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, leav­ing Democ­rats to pass it on their own.

The Sen­ate roll call on con­cur­rence was as follows:

ESB 6313
Young vot­ers
Sen­ate vote on Final Pas­sage as Amend­ed by the House

Yeas: 27; Nays: 21; Excused: 1

Vot­ing Yea: Sen­a­tors Bil­lig, Car­lyle, Cleve­land, Con­way, Darneille, Das, Dhin­gra, Frockt, Hasegawa, Hunt, Keis­er, Kud­er­er, Liias, Lovelett, McCoy, Mul­let, Nguyen, Ped­er­sen, Ran­dall, Rolfes, Sal­daña, Salomon, Stan­ford, Takko, Van De Wege, Well­man, Wil­son (Claire)

Vot­ing Nay: Sen­a­tor Beck­er, Braun, Brown, Erick­sen, For­tu­na­to, Hawkins, Holy, Hon­ey­ford, King, Muz­za­ll, O’Ban, Pad­den, Rivers, Schoesler, Shel­don, Short, Wag­oner, Walsh, War­nick, Wil­son (Lyn­da), Zeiger

Excused: Sen­a­tor Hobbs

Sen­a­tor Hans Zeiger, speak­ing for the Sen­ate Repub­li­can cau­cus, argued the bill should not be passed because the Unit­ed States Con­sti­tu­tion and Wash­ing­ton State Con­sti­tu­tion spec­i­fy that the min­i­mum age to vote is eighteen.

How­ev­er, Zeiger is incorrect.

For ref­er­ence, here’s what our fed­er­al con­sti­tu­tion says:

Unit­ed States Con­sti­tu­tion: Amend­ment XXVI

The right of cit­i­zens of the Unit­ed States, who are eigh­teen years of age or old­er, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the Unit­ed States or by any State on account of age.

The Con­gress shall have pow­er to enforce this arti­cle by appro­pri­ate legislation.

And here’s what our state Con­sti­tu­tion says:

Wash­ing­ton State Con­sti­tu­tion: Amend­ment 63

SECTION 1. QUALIFICATIONS OF ELECTORS. All per­sons of the age of eigh­teen years or over who are cit­i­zens of the Unit­ed States and who have lived in the state, coun­ty, and precinct thir­ty days imme­di­ate­ly pre­ced­ing the elec­tion at which they offer to vote, except those dis­qual­i­fied by Arti­cle VI, sec­tion 3 of this Con­sti­tu­tion, shall be enti­tled to vote at all elections.

Sen­a­tor Zeiger’s argu­ment fails because the afore­men­tioned pro­vi­sions do not bar peo­ple under the age of eigh­teen from vot­ing. The amend­ments say clear­ly that if you are eigh­teen years of age or old­er, you can­not be dis­qual­i­fied from vot­ing on account of age. Mean­ing, some­one under the age of eigh­teen can be dis­qual­i­fied under these pro­vi­sions, but dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion is not required.

Our inter­pre­ta­tion is that the VOTE Act is constitutional.

It’s worth not­ing that sev­en­teen oth­er states cur­rent­ly allow sev­en­teen year-olds to vote in pri­maries. They are Col­orado, Con­necti­cut, Delaware, Illi­nois, Indi­ana, Ken­tucky, Maine, Mary­land, Mis­sis­sip­pi, Nebras­ka, New Mex­i­co, North Car­oli­na, Ohio, South Car­oli­na, Vir­ginia, Ver­mont, and West Virginia.

There is no case law sup­port­ing Sen­a­tor Zeiger’s interpretation.

“No case has test­ed whether the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment pos­sess­es the pow­er to pre­vent states from low­er­ing their vot­ing age below eigh­teen, since it has nev­er tried to bar states from doing so,” jour­nal­ist and his­to­ri­an Andrew Glass observed in a 2017 arti­cle for Politi­co that sum­ma­rized Ore­gon v. Mitchell.

Our team at NPI is very much look­ing for­ward to enact­ment of ESB 6313 because adop­tion of this leg­is­la­tion will final­ly allow the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry to reach “par­tic­i­pa­tion par­i­ty” with the Wash­ing­ton State Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty’s pre­vi­ous sys­tem of pres­i­den­tial precinct cau­cus­es for del­e­gate allocation.

What do we mean by “par­tic­i­pa­tion parity”?

I’m refer­ring to the fact that even though pri­maries are jus­ti­fi­ably con­sid­ered more inclu­sive and eas­i­er to par­tic­i­pate in than cau­cus­es, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty’s precinct cau­cus sys­tem nonethe­less used to have a cou­ple of very inter­est­ing and impor­tant par­tic­i­pa­tion advan­tages over the pres­i­den­tial primary.

One of those advan­tages was same-day vot­er registration.

A per­son not reg­is­tered to vote could fill out a vot­er reg­is­tra­tion form at a cau­cus and would be allowed to par­tic­i­pate under par­ty rules. Until last year, same-day vot­er reg­is­tra­tion was not allowed in Wash­ing­ton State. Now it is allowed, and a vot­er may reg­is­ter to vote right up until the dead­line to return bal­lots. We were able to achieve same-day reg­is­tra­tion par­i­ty with the Democ­ra­cy Access Package.

The sec­ond was that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty’s rules explic­it­ly allowed per­sons who would be eigh­teen years of age by the date of the Novem­ber gen­er­al elec­tion to vote in the cau­cus even if they were not eigh­teen as of the date of the caucus.

In pre­vi­ous leg­isla­tive ses­sions, we asked the House and Sen­ate to adopt leg­is­la­tion sim­i­lar to ESB 6313 so that sev­en­teen year olds turn­ing eigh­teen by the Novem­ber 2020 gen­er­al elec­tion would be able to vote in the pres­i­den­tial primary.

Sad­ly, that did not hap­pen, but at least now the Leg­is­la­ture has act­ed, and going for­ward, sev­en­teen year olds will be able to vote in pres­i­den­tial pri­maries as well as Top Two elec­tions, which are real­ly the first round of the Novem­ber gen­er­al elec­tion. This is a big win for par­tic­i­pa­tion, inclu­sion, and democracy.

We thank the Leg­is­la­ture for get­ting this done. On to the bill signing!

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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