New Elections Laws Passed in 2023
This blog summarizes five new election laws in Washington State and also highlights a recent state supreme court decision about voting rights. These new laws include an earlier candidate filing week each May, changes to online voter registrations, and amendments to the Washington Voting Rights Act.
Amendments to the Washington Voting Rights Act – HB 1048
The Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA), chapter 29A.92 RCW, provides legal authority for both voluntary and court-ordered changes to district-based voting in local governments. The law provides for judicial review of allegations that the way in which district boundaries are drawn discriminate against, or otherwise result in the dilution of the vote of, persons based on race, color, or membership in a language minority group.
The provisions of HB 1048 amending the WVRA are effective January 1, 2024.
First, the standing requirements to bring a WVRA case have been expanded to include organizations with members or volunteers that include a voter who resides in the political subdivision where an electoral system is being challenged. In addition, a tribe located partially or fully within the political subdivision where an electoral system is being challenged will also have standing.
According to the final bill report, these changes may not be interpreted to relieve a party of the requirement to otherwise establish standing as provided in Washington case law when filing a lawsuit under the WVRA.
The WVRA was also amended to make clear that a class of citizens protected by the WVRA includes a cohesive coalition of members of different racial, ethnic, or language-minority groups. Regarding establishment of a WVRA violation, no single factor is required. Although previously allowed by the courts, the law now expressly provides that the parties to a WVRA case may stipulate to a violation of the WVRA.
Other provisions of HB 1048 include that courts may not approve WVRA remedies that violate the WVRA and may not give deference to a proposed remedy solely because it was proposed by the local government. In determining whether polarized voting exists, a court is not required to consider or determine why polarized voting exists.
For counties only, a new section is added to the WVRA that is specific to Indian tribal status:
(1) A county may reasonably increase the number of elected commissioners to remedy a potential violation of RCW 29A.92.020 if the protected class or one of the protected classes subject to alleged vote dilution is Indian tribal status.
(2) After finding a violation of RCW 29A.92.020 or upon stipulation of the parties, the court may order a reasonable increase in the number of elected officials on a county commission if the defendant political subdivision is a county and the protected class or one of the protected classes subject to alleged vote dilution is Indian tribal status.
Expanded costs and fees are made available to a person(s) or organization that brings a notice of intent to challenge an election system under the WVRA resulting in a remedy adopted and approved by a court. Requests for cost reimbursements must include financial documentation and must be filed within 30 days of adoption of the new electoral system. Within 60 days, the political subdivision must then reimburse the costs incurred in conducting the research necessary to send the notice, up to $50,000.
Attorneys' fees and costs may be recovered even if court relief or a favorable judgment is not granted, provided the lawsuit alters a political subdivision's behavior regarding its election system. A person or organization that prevails in a WVRA lawsuit may recover reasonable fees and costs incurred before filing the action.
In addition, the WVRA now provides that state and local laws related to the right to vote must be construed liberally in favor of protecting the right to vote and ensuring that all voters have equitable access to register and participate in elections.
On a related note, the Washington State Supreme Court recently upheld the WVRA against an allegation that the law was invalid and otherwise unconstitutional. See, Portugal vs. Franklin County, ___ Wn. 3d ___ (June 15, 2023). The court further held (at page 34):
The WVRA does not confer any privilege to any class of citizens. Instead, the WVRA protects the “equal opportunity” of voters of all races, colors, and language minority groups “to elect candidates of their choice.” RCW 29A.92.020, .030(1)(b) (emphasis added). Therefore, all Washington voters have equal rights to challenge their local governments for alleged WVRA violations.
Candidate Filing Requirements – SB 5182
Effective July 23, 2023, SB 5182 moves the candidate filing period to “the week beginning the first Monday in May” (rather than two weeks before the Memorial Day holiday).
Beginning in May 2024, the acceptance of electronically filed declarations of candidacy will take place during regular business hours (between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.) during candidate filing week. Additional provisions require the Washington Secretary of State’s Office (SOS) and county auditors to develop contingency plans in case there are local or system-wide internet disruptions, including during the two hours immediately preceding the filing deadline.
For voter pamphlet submissions, the SOS and county auditors may, by rule, set a deadline for candidate statements and photographs. The submission deadline must be at least 11 days after the end of the candidate filing period.
Online Voter Registration – SB 5208
SB 5208 takes effect next year on July 15, 2024, and allows any person registering to vote online to use the last four digits of their social security number to verify their identity instead of using Washington state-issued identification, such as a driver’s license or identicard. However, when using social security card information as identification, a person must also submit “signature images” to the Secretary of State or as part of the confirmation notice process for their voter registration.
Automatic Voter Registration – SB 5112
SB 5112 requires automatic voter registration (AVR) for applicants for enhanced driver's licenses or identicards or renewals, with an option to opt out of AVR. AVR through the Washington Department of Licensing (DOL) begins on July 15, 2024. Prior to this law change, applicants to DOL are offered the opportunity to register or update their registration to vote. With the change, enhanced applicants will be automatically registered to vote or their voter information will be automatically updated, with a later opportunity to opt out of registration or changes to their voter information.
Other provisions of HB 5112 take effect this year (July 23, 2023), including:
- An amendment to RCW 29A.08.630(3) to now provide that the “county auditor must cancel an inactive voter registration when receiving information indicating that the inactive voter has moved out of state or died.”
- Changes to RCW 29A.08.810, about challenges to voter registrations based on a voter residing at a different address or registered to vote in another state.
- RCW 29A.08.710(2)(a) is amended so only a voter's year of birth, rather than their full date of birth as recorded on the voter rolls, is subject to public disclosure.
Records of Future Voters and their Participation in State Primaries – SB 5153
SB 5153 amends some of the same statutes amended by SB 5112 (above). The public disclosure exemption in chapter 29A.08 RCW that previously prohibited the disclosure of registration information for future voters under the age of 18, no longer applies if the future voter is registered and eligible to participate in the next presidential primary, primary, or general election.
Beginning September 1, 2023, since non-enhanced driver’s license or identicard applicants are not automatically registered to vote, RCW 46.20.155 is amended to eliminate the question of, “Are you at least 16 years old?” as part of the process for DOL to inquire whether licensing and identicard applicants also want to register to vote. Instead, applicants are asked if they affirmatively want to register to vote and are eligible.
New and Updated MRSC Elections Pages
In addition to these legislative changes, MRSC has recently expanded and improved the elections-related topic pages on our website. These webpages provide information on a wide range of election topics, including:
- Local government candidates and newly elected officials,
- Local ballot propositions,
- Elections administration,
- District-based elections and redistricting, and
- Restrictions on the use of public facilities in election campaigns.
To access these resources and learn more, see our page on Local Elections.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.