by Olivia Perez
Eleven days after my 18th birthday, I voted in my first election. That wasn’t the only first: because my parents aren’t U.S. citizens, I was one of the first people in my family to be eligible to vote in any U.S. election. From a very young age I have wanted to run for office. I struggled to believe that running for office was a possibility for me because I never saw women who looked like me in positions of political power.
I never saw Latinx representatives advocating for policies that would help my community or working to oppose policies that would hurt marginalized communities like mine. Latinx people make up the second largest ethnic group in Washington. As of the 2010 census, we accounted for nearly 12% of the population, and the numbers are set to grow. But in local and state government, we’re barely represented.
As Washingtonians, we love to pride ourselves on our progressive ideas. Voting upholds all of them. It’s the bedrock of our democracy, and the freedom to vote ensures that every eligible person is able to participate in the political process, regardless of their identity. But people of color aren’t given that freedom equally, including the Latinx community. Many are migrant workers in rural areas. Many lead busy lives, juggling full-time, demanding jobs and family responsibilities. All of these factors contribute to low voter turnout and under-representation in government because of lack of structures that encourage participation.
Where our state should be leading, we’re falling behind on a major voting rights policy: automatic voter registration (AVR). In the nine states with AVR, eligible people are automatically registered to vote when they interact with government agencies. In states like Oregon, California, and even West Virginia, a simple trip to the DMV is enough to register a new voter with their consent. For people who move frequently, like migrant workers and young people, AVR is a simple, efficient solution for updating voter registrations.
AVR keeps voter rolls clean, accurate, and secure. Since the policy was implemented in Oregon, there’s been an incredible increase in registration by millennials. I want to see that in Washington, not just for my peers, but for my neighbors and family, too. AVR is an essential tool to ensure that the freedom to vote is accessible to everyone—including Washington’s Latinx communities.
Today, when I think about running for office, I think about women of color like Rebecca Saldaña and Pramila Jayapal who are currently serving. I think about the voters who elected them into office. Low voter turnout hurts our community: Latinx people account for 6.6% of all eligible voters in the state, but only 4.7% are registered, and we made up only 3.7% of all ballots cast in 2016’s general election. When registration isn’t accessible, we’re less likely to vote; when we don’t vote, we don’t elect Latinx representatives who know us and will be accountable to us. With a pathway to more accessible voter registration, my neighbors, my friends, and my family will have greater access to the ballot. Our constant struggle to be heard will not be as prevalent.
In order to elect people of color into office, there must first be a pathway for voters from marginalized communities to more easily register to vote and keep their registration information up-to-date. Voting is the best way for my community to be involved in politics, but we are in a constant fight to be heard by our government. Washington must work to diminish voting registration barriers.
This state has been a champion for progressive movements and by passing AVR, Washington can be the tenth state in the country to create a more accessible pathway for voter registration. AVR can increase voter turnout for communities of color. We will be better equipped to vote for candidates who will advocate for our communities. We will be empowered to have a greater say in what goes on in our communities and in our government. And, hopefully, when Latinx kids look at their representatives, they will finally see faces that look like their own.
Olivia Perez, 20, is a student at UW. The first in her family to attend university, she is studying political science and labor studies.