Note: The following op-ed appeared in The News Tribune of Tacoma Feb. 15, 2023.
By Sen. Jeff Wilson
Every election day, millions of Americans exercise one of our most cherished freedoms — our right to do absolutely nothing.
For those of us who live in Washington state, a bill before the Legislature this year would end that, by requiring all of us to cast a ballot in every primary and general election. That this heavy-handed proposal is getting serious consideration in the Washington Senate demonstrates the mindset of its current political leaders and their blithe willingness to put government’s desires ahead of the people. Of all the excesses we have seen in the Washington Legislature during six years of Democratic Party control, this is among the most chilling.
Senate Bill 5209 is no fringe proposal. It is sponsored by Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, chair of the Senate State Government and Elections Committee, and is co-sponsored by leaders of the Senate Democratic Caucus. Already the bill has gotten a hearing and a vote in committee and is poised in the Senate Rules Committee for a possible vote on the Senate floor. I’m not sure what is scarier — eliminating the right to apathy, or the fact that so many of my colleagues think this is a good idea.
They say it would boost voter turnout. If government forces people to participate in elections, they say people will be more supportive of government. So they would use the force of law to make all of us comply with this vision of good citizenship. Those who would prefer not to vote would be required to seek a “waiver” from the state. The bill doesn’t contain a penalty. That, of course, would be subject to change by future legislatures.
This proposal, on its face, is awful enough. Last year it would have turned 36% of the Washington electorate into lawbreakers — the 36% who didn’t vote. In our last presidential election, 14% sat out. That was their right, under the freedom of speech, and all the power to them. An 86% turnout for one of the most significant presidential elections of our time is hardly an indication that our system needs fixing. We should wonder: Why is this attempt being mounted? And why here, of all places, where our vote-by-mail system has created one of the best voter participation rates in the country?
During our Jan. 31 hearing on this issue, we heard from Miles Rapoport, a former Connecticut Secretary of State who has become a national advocate for compulsory voting. A book he coauthored last year, “100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting,” argues that Washington is one of several states with a constitution that might permit such rules to be imposed on the people. Just as likely, this new progressive crusade has landed here because the current makeup of our Legislature might allow such a bill to be passed.
In his testimony, Rapoport claimed the requirement is inoffensive because it is “neutral” — people wouldn’t be told how to vote, just that they have to do it. The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected this type of “compelled speech” numerous times before, most eloquently in Wooley v. Maynard (1977), which upheld the right of New Hampshire residents to tape over the “Live Free or Die” motto on that state’s license plates. The court declared the First Amendment protects “both the right to speak freely and the right not to speak at all.”
Should this bill pass, I am sure a challenge would go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The possibility of an adverse ruling should frighten all of us.
An expansive view of freedom of speech is the foundation of numerous Supreme Court decisions our progressive colleagues would like to overturn. One is the landmark 2018 Janus Decision, which reduced the power of public employee unions by prohibiting mandatory union fees. Another is the court’s Citizens United ruling, which gives corporations the same free-speech rights as the organizations that play on the left.
Throughout our society, we are seeing efforts to restrict freedom of speech to confer a political advantage to one side at the expense of the other, from crackdowns on free academic debate to efforts to restrict what we can say on social media platforms. Now we have a bill so blatantly unconstitutional under current Supreme Court rulings that it seems designed to create a test case. The implications for free speech are terrifying. Let’s kill this bill, spare the U.S. Supreme Court an argument that risks our constitutional freedoms, and protect our right to vote “No, thank you.”