Compulsory voting bill advances from committee, would force Washingtonians to cast ballots

‘I can’t believe this is a serious proposal,’ says Sen. Jeff Wilson, ranking Republican

OLYMPIA – A bill that would require Washington residents to vote in every major election cleared the Senate State Government and Elections Committee Tuesday, and ranking Republican Jeff Wilson said he is stunned to see the bill advance.

Senate Bill 5209 was approved without comment on a voice vote, with Republicans sounding disapproval. The vote advances the bill to the Senate Rules Committee, the last step before a vote on the full Senate floor.

The bill requires all Washington voters to cast ballots in every primary and general election, and requires those wishing not to vote to seek a waiver from the state. The proposal, unprecedented in the United States, contains no penalty. However, any legislation once passed is subject to alteration by future legislatures.

Senate Bill 5209 is sponsored by Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, chair of the Senate State Government and Elections committee. It is cosponsored by 13 Democratic members of the state Senate, including six members of the Senate Democratic Caucus leadership team. Wilson, R-Longview, said he is flabbergasted that compulsory voting could pass a committee that has declined to hold hearings on proposals to reform Washington state’s emergency-powers statutes.

“Forcing people to vote against their will appears to be a high priority for the Senate Democratic Caucus,” Wilson said. “What a shame that reforming the governor’s emergency powers doesn’t seem to carry the same importance for my colleagues. Our COVID emergency dragged on for nearly three years, and our badly-written emergency statute made the governor our maximum leader for as long as he wanted. Thousands upon thousands of people told us they wanted their Legislature to do something about that, because the people had no voice in COVID decision-making. Unfortunately, our colleagues have told us they are unwilling to consider reforms, meaning this slap to democracy could happen again the next time the governor decides to declare an emergency.

“Yet a priority like compulsory voting sails right through. It is anathema to the principles outlined in our constitution. We have the right to vote in this country, and that implies we have a choice. This bill takes that choice away from us. I can’t believe this is a serious proposal.”

Advocates of forced voting say they believe Washington state’s constitution would permit such a state law to be enacted. However, the federal constitution may prove an obstacle – the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that freedom of speech includes the right not to speak. “When we heard the bill last week, none of the advocates mentioned how they are planning to get around one of the most firmly established principles of constitutional law,” Wilson said. “I am almost afraid to ask.”