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Ferguson, Hobbs agree to settlement voiding original WA Constitution voter rule

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(The Center Square) – Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs’ Office has, through agency rulemaking, officially removed a residency requirement for registering to vote enshrined in the state’s original 1889 Constitution.

The rulemaking occurred after both Hobbs and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson agreed to a consent decree earlier this year to settle a 2023 lawsuit arguing that the constitutional provision violated federal law due to a 2018 state law.

Under Article VI, Section 1 of the Washington Constitution, a person must be a resident of Washington for 30 days “immediately preceding the election at which they offer to vote” in order to register.

However, a November 2023 lawsuit filed by the Washington State Alliance for Retired Americans argued that this residency requirement was in violation of the U.S. Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970, which prohibits residency requirements for people to participate in federal elections. In 2018, the state Legislature enacted Senate Bill 6021, which allows Washington voters to register to vote as late as 8 p.m. on Election Day.

According to the consent decree, “as a result of this change, Washington residents who have lived at a particular address longer than 30 days do not have to meet any durational limits to vote, while new residents must meet the 30-day Durational Residency Requirement.”

The consent decree stipulated that the residency requirement be removed, not just for federal elections but for state elections as well, “as long as the State does not impose a durational registration requirement to vote.” If the Legislature did impose that requirement before Aug. 1, then the 30-day residency requirement in the state Constitution would be allowed to remain.

If SOS’s rulemaking is allowed to remain through Aug. 1, the Legislature can still impose new residency requirements in the future and reinstate the constitutional provision, but the change would not take effect until after this year’s election season.

Though no longer enforced, Article VI, Section 1 will remain in the Constitution unless the document is amended to remove it.

The consent decree was signed by Ferguson on Hobbs’ behalf on March 8, the day after the legislative session ended. The lawsuit was also filed against King County Elections Director and Thurston County Auditor’s Office, both of which also signed the decree.

At a June 25 rulemaking session, SOS adopted the change so that people registering to vote are no longer required to attest that they have been a resident of Washington for 30 days. According to archive.org’s June 13 capture of the SOS voter registration form, the 30-day requirement had already been removed.

The change has drawn criticism from some political candidates, including Dale Whittaker running for SOS as a Republican. In a post on his campaign website he wrote that “the Consent Decree is a backroom deal that bypasses the state constitution, legislature, and the citizens of Washington. This is a power-grab by activists using the courts and willing supplicants to make wholesale changes to state election practices hoping it flies under the radar of public and legal scrutiny. The 30-day residency requirement is a constitutional mandate that cannot be disregarded, and the recent court action does just that.”

Kittitas County Auditor Bryan Elliot wrote in an email to The Center Square that “my biggest concern is the rapid implementation of this change in a Presidential Election year. Our offices are agile, but this action has the potential to create further mistrust of the voter registration system, especially when state law and the state constitution both still contain language that is contrary to the consent decree.”

“Additionally, there are more changes needed than just updating the voter registration form, which are already provided free of charge to counties,” he wrote further. “We will also need to update and replace our confirmation and acknowledgement notices to voters which all contain references to the 30-day residency requirement. This will be an unbudgeted expense for my county that we will need to prioritize to comply with the ruling.”

When The Center Square reached out to SOS for comment, Communications Manager Derrick Nunnally wrote in an email that “this agreement saved the state a costly and likely losing court fight over enforcing the 30-day residency requirement.”

When asked whether or not Hobbs would support a legislative solution to restore the requirement, Nunnally wrote that “Hobbs would give any such proposal a full review and evaluation before deciding any question of support or opposition,” noting that Hobbs voted in favor of the 2018 same-day voter registration bill when he was a state senator.

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