Op-Ed: To Fight Racism, We Need Automatic Voter Registration in Washington

by Oskar Zambrano

In 2016, thousands of young Latinx Americans from mixed-status families across the country had a wake-call: it was time to vote. Donald Trump’s candidacy presented a terrifying threat to the safety of their parents, siblings, and communities. With the clock ticking, many of these young people rushed to the polls on Election Day, only to find they couldn’t take part. Why? They were eligible to vote, but they weren’t yet registered.

We need to be sure that never happens again by making registration more accessible. Our right to vote is a fundamental freedom and for good reason–because every American has a stake in the decisions that become law, each one of us must be able to freely participate in elections. Imagine a democracy where all voices and interests are represented in who gets elected and what gets passed, where everyone is able to participate in elections without complications or barriers.

This is a vision of what racially equitable voter participation looks like. That’s the vision Washington state strives to achieve. From mail-in ballots to online registration, we’ve lead the way for our nation. This year, lawmakers are considering a solution that could get us even closer to a truly representative democracy in Washington: Automatic Voter Registration.

If you’re not already familiar, Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) is a simple way to help more Washingtonians get registered to vote. When eligible people interact with certain government agencies, they’re automatically registered unless they choose to opt out. AVR can also update an existing registration after someone has changed their address. Nearly one million eligible Washingtonians aren’t registered to vote; it’s been estimated that AVR could register up to 90 percent of those people. In some state electoral districts, only 14 percent of eligible voters of color are registered, while in some districts, up to 96 percent of white voters are registered.

Through my work for the Latino Community Fund, I’ve heard the stories of recent immigrants, working parents, community elders, and young people just starting to get involved in the political process. I know they care deeply about our democracy, and could benefit from the opportunity AVR provides. Our communities have been under attack by extremists who use racial profiling and inhumane, un-American policies to tear our families apart. I stand with my community, and work every day to ensure that the things we fear don’t come to pass. However, racist attacks on undocumented people and mixed-status families will only end when we come together and use our ballots to deny racists power. That starts with ensuring every eligible Washingtonian can vote, and AVR is an essential step to realizing that goal. I’m not alone in my vision; our representatives are working on an AVR bill that will help more eligible voters participate than ever before, that also includes strong protections for non-citizens.

If passed, Washington’s AVR policy would hold government agencies to the highest standard possible, ensuring every agency involved does its part to enfranchize eligible voters without discrimination. Some mixed-status families are concerned that AVR could increase the risk of undocumented family members being exposed to federal immigration agencies. Governor Inslee and our elected leaders have heard their concerns.

To that end, Governor Inslee has issued an executive order prohibiting state employees–including those who would register voters with AVR–from voluntarily disclosing citizenship status of Washingtonians to ICE. Furthermore, the AVR bill requires that if a non-citizen were registered in error, the Secretary of State’s office would be responsible for conducting an investigation into the agency that registered the non-citizen; the non-citizen would not be liable for the agency’s mistake. Legislators and voting rights advocates are working hard to make the bill even stronger for the safety of our families and communities.

From the very beginning, this AVR bill has been about the people: about making sure every eligible voter can participate without complication. It’s been about including marginalized communities–people of color, low-income workers, women, young people, and more–who are typically left out of the political conversation. We want to create the most accessible voting system we can while balancing strong safeguards for non-citizens. I’m confident that the advocates and legislators working on this bill will do just that. Across the country and here in the evergreen state, Latinx families and their allies are calling for humane immigration reform. If we want to see that change, we need to have an equitable and representative democracy and election system.

To get there, we need every eligible person registered to vote so that no voter is turned away from the ballot box on Election Day. If we pass AVR, we’re one step closer to a democracy in Washington that is not only of, by, and for the people, but also reflects our compassionate spirit and commitment to equity and justice.

Oskar Zambrano is the Director of Civic Engagement and Advocacy at Latino Community Fund, and a steering member on the Washington Voting Justice CoalitionOskar was born in Mexico City and brought to the USA at the age of two. He grew up in California under Gov. Pete Wilson’s threat to the immigrant community with prop. 187. This was enough motivation for Oskar to become a Youth Advocate in the 6th grade. His pursuit for Social, Economic, Environmental, Education, and Immigration Justice has led him all over the country to motivate Latinx students and communities to fight injustice with the ballot and organize around grassroots civic engagement actions.

Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to SusieOG



6 thoughts on “Op-Ed: To Fight Racism, We Need Automatic Voter Registration in Washington”

  1. Who, pray tell, do you want us to vote for? The Democrats just threw your immigrant rights movement under the damn bus to reach a deal with Trump. If you’re strategy is just elect more Democrats and hope for the best, you have no strategy at all.


    Here is what United We Dream has said about the latest Senate budget deal between Republican and Democratic leadership that did not include a decision on DACA:

    Washington, DC — Today, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer announced a deal on government spending which does not include protections for immigrant youth whose lives are in danger.

    Since Trump killed the Deferred Action program, over 17,000 immigrant youth have lost their protections from deportation and 850 more are losing it every week joining the millions who have no protection at all from Trump’s agents.

    Greisa Martinez Rosas, Advocacy Director for United We Dream and potential beneficiary of the Dream Act said:

    “When Trump killed DACA, Chuck Schumer looked me in the eye and laid out a plan of action to protect immigrant youth and failed to deliver a legislative solution to the crisis we face.

    “With Trump’s agents breathing down our necks we have had to protest the Senate Democratic leaders just to get them to stand firm. As a vibrant resistance to Trump’s unpopular white supremacist vision grows in cities across the country, Chuck Schumer has failed to be the strategist we need to win.

    “Immigrant youth and the country need the Dream Act—a bipartisan bill to protect immigrant youth and create a pathway to citizenship.

    “Right now, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is on the floor speaking about the need for the Dream Act and I am sitting outside of her office waiting for an answer about whether House Democrats will join Senator Schumer or if she will keep her word to not support a spending bill without the Dream Act.

    “As I write these words, hundreds of immigrant youth and our allies are at this very moment rallying and even getting arrested at the Capitol calling on House Republicans and Democrats to deliver the Dream Act. We are doing our part, it is past time for Congress to do theirs.”

    Meanwhile, on the floor of the House, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has been talking all day, asking that Speaker Paul Ryanhold a vote on a legislative fix on DACA.

    And this all happened why undocumented youth and allies got arrested for demonstrating at the Hart Senate Office Building.

    1. Why don’t you stop making assumptions about people you don’t know? Obama isn’t mentioned once in this piece. Do you know if the author voted for him? No, you don’t. People other than Dems have run locally (see: Socialist Alternative and People’s Party). Please actually contend with what someone’s saying instead of simply copying and pasting some long barely comprehensible screed.

    2. Lonnie, I see that you have many profiles… I can not tell you who to vote for. Also,where in my piece does it clarify that Obama is my “Boy”…? We dubbed him Deporter-in-Chief for a reason. It’s not about party lines, this issue is about Human rights. These get trampled when people don’t speak out and one of the most important tools we have in our democracy is to vote. All taxpayers should have the right to voice their opinion at the ballot regardless of party.