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Flynn opposes late voter registration

A bill that would extend voter registration until Election Day has drawn the opposition of Kitsap County Auditor Karen Flynn, who feels that to do so would make the administration of elections more difficult and less accurate.

“The concept of the bill has great merit,” Flynn said. “That is, to give all citizens a chance to participate. But the details haven’t been worked out. The question is whether this is right for the state of Washington, which already has a high voter turnout and mostly votes by mail.”

The bill, SB-5562, was passed by the state Senate and is now under consideration by the House of Representatives. It would allow anyone not registered to vote on election day simply by filling out a registration form at the polling place itself.

Currently, voters who want to register by mail must postmark their registration forms 30 days before an election. Those who register in person must do so in the 15 days preceding an election.

The bill’s sponsors don’t feel this gives voters enough time.

“In this age of computers, it makes sense to allow people to register up to the very last minute,” said co-sponsor Sen. Harriet Spanel (D-Bellingham). “For many young people, this will make the difference whether they vote or not.”

Those supporting the bill point to its success in other states. Flynn, however, feels the states that have had a positive experience with the process are not comparable to Washington.

As a primarily vote-by-mail state, there are fewer places where registration can be conducted. Kitsap County, for example, has only two that operate on Election Day.

“The idea is to increase voter participation,” Flynn said. “But voting by mail has already given us as much of an increase as late registration has in other states.”

Flynn said allowing late registration adds an unnecessary administrative element that taxes the resources of an already overworked Auditor’s Office.

The proposal has drawn unanimous opposition all from Washington State auditors as well as from Secretary of State Sam Reed.

“As it was proven in the 2004 gubernatorial election, county auditors have a lot to do in a very short time,” Reed said. “This adds a new level that makes their lives a lot more complicated. It is a potentially messy situation, which may give us less meaningful results.”

“The states where this works, like Iowa and Minnesota, don’t have the population that we do,” said Rep. Sherry Appleton (D-Poulsbo). “I think a lot of things need to be worked out before we pass this bill.”

Reed said states that allow late registration receive as much as 20 percent of their total registrations on election day. With a state population of nearly 6 million, auditors would not be able to handle such a large number.

“When voters are told they don’t have to register until election day, they won’t do it in advance,” Flynn said. “Human nature shows that people tend to wait until the last minute.”

Then there’s the cost. Flynn said the new measure would add $9.8 million in election costs statewide and about $120,000 in Kitsap County.

A great percentage of this cost would go to hire and train more personnel, since registering voters is not an entry-level job.

Primary sponsor Sen. Eric Oemig (D-Kirkland) said opponents to the bill are victims of misinformation. He does not feel people accustomed to registering and voting by mail will necessarily change their habits.

And he maintains it will increase voter participation.

“People get more interested in the issues as election day gets closer,” he said. “There is more of a dialogue about important issues. And a lot of times the voter registration deadline will catch people off guard.”

Oemig said the bill is specifically geared toward many of his constituents, engineers at Microsoft and other large companies who may move into the area in the weeks prior to election day.

As the bill is addressed by the House of Representatives, Oemig said several amendments will be added to correct any misinformation and make it more palatable to the current opposition. For instance, those who register on election day will have their ballots treated as “provisional” and be counted with other ballots that must be cleared. And the new practice would not begin until 2009.

“You don’t want to make a change this big in a presidential election year,” he said.

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