Sen. Sam Hunt reintroduced a bill to legally require people to vote — but there wouldn’t be any consequences if you don’t.

By Grace Deng / January 24, 2024


State Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, has introduced a bill to make voting compulsory in Washington. But under Hunt’s legislation, there’d be no punishment for citizens who ignore the requirement.

Senate Bill 5209 calls for adding a sentence on every ballot that says: “You may leave any portion or the entirety of this ballot blank. However, you are required by law to submit this ballot to your local county elections office by Election Day.”

Residents could submit a waiver to be exempt from the bill’s voter registration requirement. But even if someone skips the waiver, or fails to cast a ballot, there’s no penalty.

“This bill does not require anybody to cast a vote,” Hunt said. “If it’s everybody’s responsibility to vote, I think we would see a big increase in the number of people who actually vote.”

This is the second time Hunt has brought forth “universal civic duty voting” legislation. Last year, he told Oregon Public Radio that he got the idea from a book he read called “100% Democracy.”

Hunt has mulled other ways to promote civic engagement at the polls but said he hasn’t come up with a “magic bullet” yet.

“I thought of having a lottery and drawing a number of a voter in the primary and general and each getting some sort of a lottery prize, but somebody says that’s paying for a vote,” Hunt said while presiding over a Tuesday committee hearing.

“I say, no, that’s paying to vote,” he added.

Several countries have compulsory voting laws, including Australia, which is often held up as a model for the policy. Australia has some of the highest voter turnout in the world, consistently reaching over 90% since the country instituted its law in 1924. The fine for not voting there, which starts at the equivalent of about $13 U.S. dollars, is rarely enforced.

Washington has higher-than-average voter turnout compared to the rest of the U.S., thanks in part to the state’s universal vote-by-mail system. That reputation was somewhat tarnished by turnout in last November’s election, which was the lowest the state has seen in modern history, checking in under 37%.

State lawmakers have introduced other proposals to improve voter engagement, including shifting local elections to even-numbered years, which is when federal and state elections are held. Odd-numbered election years tend to have much lower turnout.

Advocates for universal democracy testified in support of Hunt’s bill, citing Australia as a case study and said the bill would promote more inclusive democracy.

But Hunt’s bill faces opposition. Of the people who submitted their positions on the bill to the Legislature,1,586 people signed in against and 150 in favor.

Those who testified against the legislation said they had logistical concerns, such as the burden on election offices. Others said the bill is “coercive” and violates First Amendment speech rights.

Many testifiers with no affiliations strayed into conspiracy theories about voter fraud, undocumented immigrants and communist countries, compelling Hunt to repeatedly ask commenters to stay on topic.

“Did I draw some interest?” Hunt joked at the end of the hearing.

“You sure did,” Sen. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, replied.

FEATURED IMAGE: Sen. Sam Hunt presides over a committee hearing on his mandatory voting bill. (Grace Deng/Washington State Standard)