There were no ringing bells or cascading balloons and confetti. There was no pomp and circumstance. No one got on the loudspeaker, amid cheers, and announced what had just transpired.
There was just 18-year-old Katarina Gruber, her voter registration paperwork, and the underappreciated patriotic thrill that comes with engaging in democracy.
Little did Gruber know, when she traveled to the Pierce County Elections office to register to vote back on March 28, not long after turning 18, that doing so would mark an important milestone. It was a moment Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson described Monday as “a benchmark, and a watershed in Washington state elections.”
March 28 was the day Gruber – a senior at Clover Park High School in Lakewood – became Washington’s 4 millionth registered voter. It’s an accomplishment that was celebrated — albeit belatedly — Monday at the Pierce County Annex.
It looked like one of those celebrations of a grocery store’s 1 millionth customer, or McDonald’s serving it’s 99 billionth. And, indeed, “that’s what we’re trying to recreate,” Secretary of State Kim Wyman told me.
“In the elections community, this is a pretty big deal,” Wyman said from a podium in a small conference room, in front of what appeared to be a handmade banner. On a table nearby, an assortment of donuts, cookies and mini muffins helped mark the occasion.
In the elections community, this is a pretty big deal.
Secretary of State Kim Wyman
“Someone said there was going to be cake, and there’s not cake, so I’m disappointed,” Gruber said.
She was joking.
(While there was no cake, Gruber did go home with a plaque, a framed “a super-sized voter ID card” for a “super-sized voter,” as Anderson put it, and a coin bearing the Washington State seal.)
When it comes to her “job as a citizen,” as Gruber earnestly described voting, it’s something she says she takes very seriously.
“Growing up, you have your parents, and they’re involved in voting and they’re talking about it, and you hear it on the news all the time. So honestly, in my point of view, I couldn’t really ignore it,” Gruber said, explaining why she felt compelled to register the moment she turned 18.
“I’m voting, and there’s a presidential election this year. I would like my voice to be heard, because as an American citizen, that is my voice,” Gruber said.
She also said she remains undecided on specific presidential candidates. “I’ll probably wait until after the official nomination is done, and then I’ll get really down to picking,” she told me.
Wyman points out that Washington — a state that now has just over 7 million residents — surpassed 3 million voters 20 years ago. Reaching its 4 millionth, a “milestone” that took two decades, demonstrated how “growth has been incremental,” the Secretary of State said.
When it comes to how Washington reached this new registration high point —no doubt aided in 2016 by the typical presidential election year surge — Wyman and Anderson each pointed to the work the state has done to make it easier to register.
These efforts include creating avenues for online voter registration and the state’s “motor voter” law, which — similar to the national motor voter law — mandates that citizens offered a chance to register at driver licensing and other government offices.
Growing up, you have your parents, and their involved in voting and their talking about it, and you hear it on the news all the time. So honestly, in my point of view, I couldn’t really ignore it.
Katarina Gruber on why she registered to vote the moment she turned 18
Reaching 4 million registered voters is “a testament to some of the innovation that has happened in our state really over the last 20 years,” Wyman told me.
Specifically, Anderson pointed to a recent effort that used Facebook to spur voter registration. In Washington, the effort led to 13,072 voter registrations and updates being processed online in a single day, according to Washington’s Office of the Secretary of State.
In Pierce County, Anderson says the Facebook push “generated, literally overnight, thousands of registrations.” Her office reports that it has received some 7,000 registrations in just the last month.
For Wyman, Gruber’s age is also worth noting. At 18, she’s a millennial, a demographic the Secretary of State made a point to describe as “the largest generation to date in American history.”
“We haven’t been able to engage them quite the way we’d like to. Less than 50 percent of millennials voted in the last presidential election,” Wyman continued. By comparison, in the 2012 presidential election, nearly 61 percent of all Washingtonians of legal voting age cast a ballot.
“So we have work to do,” Wyman concludes.
For Katarina Gruber, so far so good.
“Turning 18, that’s your voice,” Gruber said of voting. “That is the gift you get.”