New laws move up Washington’s presidential primary and improve voting access for tribes

Gov. Jay Inslee signs into a law Thursday a bill that improves voting access for Washington’s Native American tribes.
Gov. Jay Inslee signs into a law Thursday a bill that improves voting access for Washington’s Native American tribes. shauna.sowersby@thenewstribune.com

Two bills aimed to increase access to democracy for Washington voters were signed by Gov. Inslee on Thursday after successfully passing through both chambers of the state Legislature.

SB 5079 enacts the Native American voting rights act of Washington.

It allows more voter registration accessibility for Native Americans living on reservations. Under the new legislation, Native American voters can register to vote online using a tribal identification card, and voters now will be able to use the address of designated buildings on tribal lands for registration.

The new law also allows tribes to request at least one ballot drop box from the county auditor at the location of the tribe’s choice. Buildings also can be designated by tribal members for ballot pickup, which must be done by the county auditor.

The bill passed the Senate with a vote of 45-3. It passed in the House with a 95-3 vote.

“In some other places in the country folks think that if you restrict the right to vote, good things happen. We think the opposite in the state of Washington,” said Inslee. “We believe the more voices, the more wisdom. And every single chance we have we try to bring more voices into this discussion.”

The bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, said that the bill was in response to what happened to voters in North Dakota in 2018 when the Supreme Court decided not to challenge a state law that required voters to have identification with current residential street addresses.

Lawyers were concerned that the ruling would prevent Native American voters from casting votes because addresses are not typically included on tribal identification cards and because most reservations do not have standard street addresses.

The adoption of the legislation is intended to increase voter turnout for off-reservation elections and will create equal opportunities for tribal residents to vote, said McCoy.

“Our democracy works best when we all have the opportunity to participate,” he said.

McCoy said the legislation will help continue to improve the relationship between tribes and the state. He said although things have gotten better, there is still plenty of work to do.

The other bill Inslee signed into law makes changes to the presidential primary in Washington state.

SB 5273 will change the state’s presidential primary from the fourth Tuesday in May to the second Tuesday in March. Additionally, political parties will be permitted to choose which candidates appear on primary ballots. Previously that was the responsibility of the Secretary of State.

Additionally, the bill would allow political parties to replace caucuses with vote-by-mail primary elections.

Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, was the bill’s prime sponsor.

“The earlier date will make the presidential primary more meaningful in our state and will increase participation,” said Hunt. “It also will enable the major political parties to use primary election results instead of caucuses to allocate Washington’s national convention votes to presidential and vice presidential candidates.”

The bill passed the Senate with a vote of 29-18. The House passed the bill with by 54-42.

The new legislation will align the primary with almost two dozen other states in the country that hold primaries or caucuses by that date, said Inslee.

Both bills will go into effect 90 days after the adjournment of the 2019 session.